Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.
It has been 33 years since Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the Soviet Union, catalyzing internal reforms that escaped his control and led, in 1989, to the downfall of Eastern Europe’s communist governments. 1991 saw the collapse of the regime in Moscow itself. Americans across the political spectrum claimed a victory not only for the military and economic power of the United States, but also for our ideas — for American-style capitalism and democracy.
It was a time of triumph. Today, however, the United States feels like a great power on the edge of its own legitimacy crisis. Euphoria and ideological vindication have long since given way to ferocious internal divisions. Confidence in our institutions has morphed into cries of “rigged system.” Among those employing such scornful language is none other than the current leader of the free world.
Between the end of the East-West Cold War and the beginning of the American Cold Civil War came the 1990s, an economically prosperous time that produced less marching in the streets than in the turbulent 1960s, but a heightening of conflict within and between the major political parties. Indeed, as Steve Kornacki, a national political correspondent for NBC and MSNBC, argues in his superb new book, “The Red and the Blue,” many seeds of the present partisan deadlock were sown during that crucial decade.
The ’90s began with a grand gesture of bipartisanship: the 1990 budget agreement between President George H.W. Bush and a Democratic Congress, which Bush and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill embraced for the sake of a broad public goal, deficit reduction, even though it required Bush to break his 1988 campaign pledge of “no new taxes.”
The Republican establishment considered this act of statesmanship appropriate to the country’s new status as global hegemon; they expected to reap political rewards. To their horror, a right-wing gadfly from Georgia named Newt Gingrich attacked the compromise from the back benches of the GOP’s caucus in the House, casting it as a betrayal of the party’s rank and file, not only by Bush but also by Republican leaders in Congress, who had grown tame after a half-century of Democratic dominance on Capitol Hill.
The rest, as they say, is history: Gingrich, who had already begun his guerrilla warfare against the go-along-to-get-along GOP House leadership by the time Gorbachev came to power in Moscow, moved on to seize power in his caucus, then toppled the Democratic majority. Though they are familiar, Kornacki recounts these events stylishly and objectively, reminding us of how the House Democrats had grown complacent after so many years in power — and how Gingrich brilliantly exploited the sheer frustration and humiliation of his fellow Republican back-benchers to gather support for his ambitions.
The other key figure in his absorbing narrative is, of course, Bill Clinton, who also got ahead in the ’90s by defying expectations and breaking rules. Clinton dared to run for president in 1992 when every other top politician in his party, including the darling of its liberal establishment, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, hesitated, scared by what was then a long string of GOP dominance in presidential politics and Bush’s sky-high approval ratings after winning the Gulf War in 1991.
Whereas Gingrich attacked the political center, Clinton tried to occupy it, shifting his party’s ideology away from liberalism, both cultural and economic. In the process, he broke a Democratic taboo by taking on the preeminent black political leader of the time, Jesse Jackson, chiding Jackson’s organization publicly for failing to condemn a hip-hop artist, Sister Souljah, when she seemed to endorse violence against whites. Clinton embraced free trade, promised a crackdown on crime, soft-pedaled organized labor’s agenda in Congress and cut a deal with Gingrich to reform welfare.
Thanks to Kornacki’s rich retelling of these events, we can see how today’s reshuffled political parties represent coalitions that began to form in reaction to the compromises their respective leaders forged in the 1990s. Donald Trump’s GOP still feeds off the anger Gingrich first aroused against 1990’s broken “no new taxes” promise. For their part, the Democrats increasingly lean left, rejecting Clinton’s centrist spirit and, indeed, blaming it for their loss of power in Washington. With Hillary Clinton now a defeated standard-bearer, power in the party is flowing to figures who have either turned against free trade and welfare work requirements or, like Bernie Sanders, never agreed with them in the first place.
As Kornacki also notes, the ’90s saw the rise of a new brand of politician — the can-do, anti-establishment, anti-NAFTA populist billionaire — in the form of H. Ross Perot, who collected millions of votes as a third-party candidate for president in 1992 and 1996. One Donald J. Trump almost picked up the standard of Perot’s chaotic Reform Party in 2000, Kornacki writes, but eventually determined that the time wasn’t right and that ultra-rightists had captured the movement.
Bowing out, Trump took a shot at eventual Reform nominee Patrick Buchanan, another perennial populist candidate in the ’90s. “The Reform Party now includes a Klansman, Mr. [David] Duke, a neo-Nazi, Mr. Buchanan, and a communist, Ms. [Lenora] Fulani,” Trump wrote in a New York Times op-ed that Kornacki pointedly rescues from obscurity. “This is not company I wish to keep.”
Taboos against overt racial and nativist rhetoric, of the kind Buchanan routinely employed, were still operative, apparently. As Trump demonstrates nearly every day now, however, that Cold War-vintage limitation on political discourse has eroded. He has, in fact, adopted Buchanan’s message as his own.
If there’s a shortcoming in Kornacki’s book, it’s that he does not expressly address the connections between the changing international environment and the incipient decomposition, during the 1990s, of what had been a centrist two-party duopoly in American politics. That duopoly reflected a broader national need for consensus in the face of a generally recognized external threat, the Soviet Union. The enemy state’s collapse liberated political entrepreneurs like Gingrich to challenge unwritten rules that had modulated political debate, at least among party politicians, for decades. The Cold War’s end, in other words, destabilized both the losing nation and the winner.
Kornacki reminds us that a mere quirk of graphic design on television election night maps in November 2000 assigned the color red to states the Republican candidate carried and blue to states the Democrat carried. America’s eventual devolution into tribes known as Red and Blue America, though, was anything but accidental.
By Steve Kornacki
Ecco. 497 pp. $29.99