THE RED AND THE BLUE
The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism
By Steve Kornacki
Illustrated. 497 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $29.99.
It can be a strange experience these days to read a book about modern American politics and divisions that is not about Donald Trump. Steve Kornacki’s “The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism” renders such an experience lively and fulfilling, if not uplifting, by making a mostly convincing case that the brutal 1990s political battles led by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich had brought the country to its stark divide between “red America” and “blue America” by election night, 2000.
Organized around searing episodes that defined the decade, the book alternately follows Clinton and Gingrich, starting even before 1990. It traces their early political rises, dwelling on the Democrats’ post-Walter Mondale fissures through which Clinton emerged and describing Gingrich’s initial attacks on the House of Representatives’ polite procedures. “I think you’re going to see a much tougher and a much more militant Republican Party,” Gingrich said after one 1985 fight, once his colleagues embraced his confrontational strategy. “I think it changes permanently the nature of the Republican Party of the House.” Kornacki, an NBC News and MSNBC national political correspondent, appears to agree.
Kornacki, who treats the Republicans’ 1990 clash over raising taxes as an inflection point, may focus on Clinton and Gingrich’s well-known battles, but he sprinkles in enough about other characters — among them Pat Buchanan, Jesse Jackson and Al D’Amato — to keep the story line going. He suggests the growing difference between right and left can be explained early on by huge conflagrations like Clinton’s scandals and Buchanan’s culture war, but also by short-term political dust-ups like Zoë Baird’s ill-fated 1993 attorney general nomination. Published just as the political world reckons with the results of the 2018 midterm elections, Kornacki’s book is full of what can be read as nods to today, including its references to Hillary Clinton and its resonant descriptions of Ross Perot, who comes across as a kind of proto-Trump.
The early Clinton era is presented as a parade of confrontations — over welfare, balanced budgets, health care — that, for a time, emboldened Gingrich’s showdown wing of Republicanism, but also vaulted Clinton to a re-election that created an early version of today’s blue America. Then came the probes and impeachment. By the time George W. Bush was elected in 2000, Kornacki writes, the country’s split was set — “these divisions were geographic, demographic and cultural.”
For all his tightly researched tales of Washington drama, however, Kornacki seldom allows external events into the narrative, even where they might provide context (the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 is one exception). The chapters also have little room for important foreign developments, for instance in Bosnia or Iraq. These omissions are mostly understandable: The book is already a long survey of the decade’s domestic politics alone. But their role in shaping the 1990s is undeniable. Whereas Kornacki paints a clear picture of a bisected political landscape, Trump’s sudden appearance — flirting with a Reform Party presidential run in 2000 — is somewhat jarring. His inclusion may be unavoidable, but after hundreds of pages of bare-knuckle politics having nothing to do with him, his appearance comes across as vaguely beside the point.
Yet the cameo ultimately makes it impossible to reach the book’s winking end without thinking of today. Kornacki’s neatly crafted arc from the 1980s to 2000 concludes with a deft look at the blowback to Clinton’s impeachment. The treatment could be longer, but it does give the answer to Kornacki’s question: How did we get to where we were in 2000? In 2018, “The Red and the Blue” implicitly leaves us with another one: When, exactly, was the pre-Trump political calm for which so many now yearn?
Gabriel Debenedetti is the national correspondent for New York magazine.