If the Republicans can't fight wars and the Democrats stink at socializing medicine, what good are they?
That would not be an altogether unreasonable question for a typical American today.
No doubt spokesmen for the respective political parties would offer all sorts of objections to that summation. And many of those objections would be fair. A defender of George W. Bush's stint as commander in chief would point to the quick toppling of Saddam and the Taliban. He or she might argue that the Democrats undermined a wartime President and fomented defeatism.
As for the Democrats, a partisan might claim that Obamacare was never intended to "socialize" medicine. While the President said that he'd prefer a single-payer system, what he proposed fell far short of that and included some Republican ideas. A Democrat-defender might also note that the Republicans are "invested in failure," as the President recently put it, and have done everything they can to undermine the Affordable Care Act.
Let's just concede there are many arguments and counterarguments to all of that.
But such arguments are for professional political protagonists. For the normal American who doesn't live and breathe politics, the simple fact is that Democrats and Republicans alike have failed to live up to their brands.
Consider war, which used to be considered part of the GOP's core competency. There was a time when Americans understood that war involved a lot of warlike stuff: tanks, bombers, civilian casualties and, of course, American casualties. But over the last 30 years, as technology has improved and our military might has become unrivaled, the American public has raised the bar in terms of what it expects. Politically and morally, we have a much lower tolerance for bloodshed. That's one reason Obama uses drones so much: They can be guided around a lot of political problems.
The Iraq war was sold, at least at times, as a war that would find weapons of mass destruction, end quickly, pay for itself and usher in a new era of democracy for an Iraqi people who would be grateful for being liberated from a tyrant. Suffice it to say that the Bush administration didn't check every one of those boxes.
Now consider health care. Liberals have been pushing for some version of universal, single-payer health care for over a century. But President Obama couldn't deliver that, even with total control of both houses of Congress. Why? Because vast numbers of Americans didn't want to lose what they had or didn't think government could offer something better. Obama understood this. So, rather than try to persuade the American people to downgrade or otherwise adjust their expectations, he simply lied to them. He said everyone in America satisfied with the health-care status quo could keep the health-care status quo, period. Like your doctor? Keep your doctor. Like your plan? Keep your plan.
Moreover, anyone dissatisfied with the status quo would get everything they wanted, too. It would be better! Cheaper! Faster, stronger, bionic! Whatever you want, he promised it.
But that was an impossible, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too promise.
Americans blame the parties for a lot, but a lot can be blamed on Americans. I don't necessarily mean that in a negative or accusatory way. I merely mean that the parties tend to lag behind the times. Culturally, Americans want all the upside and none of the downside. Fight the War on Terror, but don't violate my privacy. Kill our enemies, but don't kill anyone by accident. Contain threats, but don't cost too much.
When it comes to government services, the same mindset rules. A lot of it has to do with technology, which changes culture far more than any sitcom, song or movie. ATM machines, iPhones, apps, GPS, debit cards, you name it: All work so seamlessly we've come to think this is the way things — all things — are supposed to work. It's not an intellectual conclusion but a feeling stemming from lived experience. In pitching Healthcare.gov, Obama pandered to that expectation, vowing the site would work as well as Amazon.com. But the government doesn't work like Amazon.com. It literally can't work like Amazon.com.
In the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, many Republicans are growing more skeptical about the national security state and foreign interventions. If Obamacare continues to unravel, it will be interesting to see if Democrats undergo a similar readjustment, and stop overpromising and underdelivering.
But the far more important development will be when Americans start to downgrade their expectations of what government can do.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. You can write to him by email at email@example.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.