The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism, by Steve Kornacki, Ecco/HarperCollins, 496 pages

Our semi-civil civil war continues unabated. Changing demographics remain a flash point, and the country’s cultural divides are as explosive as ever. The looming midterm elections and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court are the latest installments in our ongoing scrum. Red and blue are no longer mere colors, but the war paints of choice of America’s dueling tribes.

Into the fray jumps NBC’s Steve Kornacki and The Red and the Blue, a smart and welcome take on U.S. politics over the past two decades. Kornacki traces how we arrived at we where we at to the 1990s, with Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich playing outsized and starring roles.

The Red and the Blue treats Clinton’s 1992 win and Gingrich’s ascension to House Speakership as pivotal moments in a decade marked outwardly by peace and prosperity, but with combustible waters bubbling to the surface in the face of political strains.

Ostensibly, Clinton rode to the White House on the mantra of “it’s the economy, stupid,” but the former Arkansas governor’s ability to the straddle the waves of cultural discontent proved to be determinative. On that score, Kornacki details how Clinton took on Sister Souljah—with an embarrassed Jesse Jackson looking on—and transformed his own candidacy into something more than just another exercise in ambition by a Democratic southern governor.   

In the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, Sister Souljah, a teenage recording artist and activist, had told the Washington Post in a May 1992 interview, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Clinton adroitly seized the moment, telling her off, and came November he pocketed the electoral votes of Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, and West Virginia, states that have now become reliably Republican.

Looking in the rear view mirror, 1988 has now emerged as the last time a non-incumbent Republican actually won the popular vote. By the same measure, however, in neither of his presidential bids did Clinton ever garner a majority. America’s emerging divisions were coming into focus.

Specifically, his first time out, Clinton managed to score only 43 percent of the electorate in a three-way race that included Ross Perot. Four years later, running against a “snake-bitten” Bob Dole and Perot for a second time, Clinton still couldn’t break the 50 percent barrier.

Rather, his candidacy remained a fusion of graduate degree holders and minority voters, coupled with a significant number of working and middle class whites. Clinton remained an anathema to religious conservatives even if he frequently attended church.

Enter Newt Gingrich, an army brat, small college history professor, and conservative trend-threader. Kornacki tells Gingrich’s story too, namely how a Republican backbencher galvanized a party that had spent nearly 40 years as a permanent congressional minority into a focused force, with Gingrich at its helm until he could hold the speaker’s gavel no more.

In Kornacki’s telling, Gingrich grasped the tectonic shifts that undergirded American politics and technology early on, and embraced the politics of contrast. No longer would the congressional GOP be an enclave of well-mannered Midwestern Rotarians. Instead, the Republican Caucus would eagerly embrace the role of ideological bomb-throwers, self-styled revolutionaries in a war against liberals and the welfare state, with Rush Limbaugh providing the marching music. Fox News would come later in 1996, two years after Gingrich’s 1994 Republican Revolution.

When George H.W. Bush broke his convention vow of “no new taxes,” Gingrich refused to provide the head of his own party with political cover. When Ken Starr supplied congressional Republicans with ammunition to impeach President Clinton, Gingrich, the congressional GOP, and the Republican base eagerly drank from the poisoned chalice—even as it ended an ethically-addled Gingrich’s congressional career and to Republican defeat in the 1998 midterms, a historic rarity for the “out party” in the sixth year of a presidency. A die for the future had been cast.

The Red and the Blue also captures the other players and hot-button issues that shape the politics of our day. The author recounts Pat Buchanan’s three unsuccessful presidential bids between 1992 and 2000. In the process, Buchanan bloodied a sitting president, scored several primary victories against the hapless Dole, and helped drive Republican platforms to the right. But Buchanan’s greatest accomplishment was in sounding the very themes that Donald Trump would come to voice on his road to the presidency: restrictive immigration and trade. America First.

Kornacki also notes Trump’s prior disdain for Buchanan in the context of the 2000 presidential contest where Buchanan ran on the Reform Party line. At the time, Trump and Buchanan both contemplated running for the party’s nomination. Back then, Trump was decidedly pro-choice, and bashed Buchanan for his take on World War II. Fast forward and Trump has left much of that behind, embracing the right and counting many of the the same Buchananite paleo-conservatives as his supporters.

The NRA and the gun debate also get their due. The book recounts how the Oklahoma City bombing helped restore Clinton’s luster after losing both houses of congress in the 1994 midterms. Clinton drew a straight line between the bombers, the Right and the NRA, earning votes from Cheever Country and soccer moms in the process. While the issue did nothing for President Obama and the Democrats in the late 2000’s, after a spate of mass shootings in 2018, high-end suburbia may be looking for more controls in the aftermath.  How will this translate at the polls next month?

Fittingly, The Red and the Blue ends by circling back to Gingrich and Clinton. Kornacki correctly observes that Gingrich was “half right” when he predicted that “definition and contrast” would drive the Republicans’ future. What he didn’t count on was that it would do the same for the Democrats.

As for the Clintons, they abandoned Arkansas, never to return. Instead, “Chappaqua, a tony suburb of New York City would be their new home. Like their party they could see where their future was.” But as the 2016 election teaches us, that’s not enough for the Democrats to get to 270. There’s the whole rest of America out there.  

Lloyd Green is the managing member of Ospreylytics, LLC, a research and analytics firm. He served on George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, and in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.