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.
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.
But 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. 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. He said everyone in America satisfied with the health-care status quo could keep the health-care status quo, period.
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.
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 mind-set 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. In pitching Healthcare.gov, Obama pandered to that expectation, vowing the site would work as well as Amazon.com. But the government just 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.