The Red and the Blue | Steve Kornacki

Summary of: The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism
By: Steve Kornacki


In ‘The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism’, Steve Kornacki delves into the origins of modern American political divisions. Offering historical insights from the administration of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Newt Gingrich, Kornacki examines how political tribalism and gridlock arose within American politics. The book highlights a period of rapid technological and economic growth, but also exposes the emergence of a new confrontational political climate. Readers can expect to gain a deep understanding of 1990s politics, well-known power figures, and their impact on today’s partisan landscape.

America’s Great Political Divide

The book explores the roots of political tribalism and gridlock in Washington by highlighting the polarization of America in the 1990s, characterized by the rise of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the changing media landscape.

Steve Kornacki’s book delves into the deep divide between Red and Blue America by examining the political landscape in the 1990s that set the stage for the current gridlock and tribalism in Washington. Although the decade was a relatively tranquil era of economic growth, Kornacki argues that beneath the calm, a new brand of politics was taking hold. The Republicans won the White House in five of the previous six elections while the Democrats held the House of Representatives for decades.

Kornacki highlights how compromise was the order of the day as House Minority Leader Robert Michel sought accommodation across the aisle, even playing golf with House Speaker Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill Jr. However, this spirit of bipartisan cooperation would soon wither as the Democrats won two presidential elections with a candidate and first lady despised by the right, and the Republicans took control of the House under the leadership of a confrontational new leader, Newt Gingrich.

The book then shifts its focus to Bill and Hillary Clinton as crucial figures in the polarization of the 1990s. Their political careers began in Arkansas in the 1970s. Bill ran for governor in 1978 and won, while Hillary faced backlash for keeping her maiden name. However, when Clinton ran again in 1982, he won easily after acknowledging Southern resentment toward women’s liberation by having his wife go by Mrs. Bill Clinton.

The other protagonist of Kornacki’s book is Newt Gingrich, who launched his political career in 1974. Although he was more liberal than the incumbent on many issues, he painted himself as a fresh face and a reformer seeking to unseat a corrupt incumbent. Despite losing in 1974 and 1976, Gingrich finally won a House seat in 1978, becoming only the fourth Republican from Georgia to win a House election since Reconstruction.

Overall, Kornacki’s book offers a compelling narrative of the roots of political tribalism and gridlock in America, and the rise of the key figures that shaped the political landscape of the 1990s.

Gingrich’s Rise to Power

The book delves into how Newt Gingrich used the Special Order time to criticize Democrats on C-SPAN and gained national attention in 1984 by publicly fighting Tip O’Neill. Gingrich became the leader of Congressional Republicans, and his next target was James Wright, the new House Speaker who he accused of being corrupt. With more media scrutiny, additional unsavory details emerged about the House Democratic regime, leading to Wright’s 1988 resignation in disgrace. Gingrich’s tactics paid off as he became a hero among Republicans and won the spot of House minority whip, setting him on the path to succeed Michel.

Gingrich’s Revolt and Clinton’s Scandal

The 1990s marked a time of political turmoil for the US. With the rising deficits, President George H.W. Bush went back on his promise of never raising taxes and faced a backlash from Newt Gingrich. The latter turned against the President, whom he deemed as an enemy of conservatism for his tax proposal. In the ensuing 1992 presidential race, Bill Clinton capitalized on the weakened Bush administration and sought the presidency. However, Clinton faced his scandal when the media began to investigate personal issues of politicians. He had to address allegations of having an affair with Gennifer Flowers, and reports that he dodged the military draft. This new environment of political exposure had changed American politics forever.

Third-Party Candidates: Bush vs. Perot

The 1992 Presidential Election was marked by two nontraditional candidates challenging George H. W. Bush. Pat Buchanan, a “paleoconservative,” was resolute in his “America first” approach while Ross Perot, a billionaire businessman from Texas, gained massive support due to voters’ disgruntlement with both Bush and Clinton. Polls showed Perot gathering support from 35% of Democrats and 28% of Republicans, making him a feasible alternative to Clinton for some. However, Perot’s habit of telling it like it is led to his downfall. During a speech at an NAACP convention, he used the phrase “your people” repeatedly, making him unpopular among his audience. In the general election, Perot secured 19% of the votes, the highest share for an independent candidate since Teddy Roosevelt, while Bush received only 38%, and Clinton won with 43%.

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