Yesterday evening, MSNBC and NBC national political correspondent Steve Kornacki spoke at the Douglass Student Center to discuss his book, “The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism.”
The program, which was hosted by Eagleton Institute of Politics, was this year’s Albert W. Lewitt Endowed Lecture. John Weingart, the associate director of Eagleton Institute of Politics, gave the introductory remarks, providing a brief history of Kornacki’s accomplishments in journalism and politics.
“Those of us who follow politics in New Jersey take a certain pride in having known him first,” Weingart said.
Kornacki then took the stage, beginning by telling the story of how he first started working as a reporter in New Jersey. At the time he was reporting, he said he was involved in the midst of scandals such as Robert Torricelli dropping out of the New Jersey Senate race, former Gov. Jim McGreevey’s (D-N.J.) governorship “imploding” and former Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) prosecuting federal crimes in the state.
“That was what I covered starting out my political career,” he said. “And compared to where we are today, it feels quaint.”
Turning to the present, Kornacki posed the question of how politics got here in the first place. He acknowledged that the rules for politics have changed, and that there is definitely tension in the politics of today.
To answer the question, he first explained the title of his book. He said the concept of “Red” and “Blue” in politics actually first began nearly two decades ago, in the presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Until then, the colors defining Republican and Democratic had not been standard.
That election was not only a partisan division, but also was influenced by factors such as geography, demographics and culture. Kornacki said these basic divisions, which are still present today, could be traced back even further to the 1990s.
Before discussing the politics of the 1990s, Kornacki also provided an explanation for the “rise of Red America.” He said a major influence on modern political history was Newt Gingrich, who was able to recognize how media was changing and use it to his advantage to flip Congress from a Democratic majority to a Republican majority in the 1980s.
Gingrich took advantage of C-SPAN, which televises the operations of the government, by giving monologues during “special order" time that attempted to frame the Democratic Party as corrupt. He eventually prompted former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill to criticize Gingrich’s character during a floor meeting, which violated House rules.
“They didn’t take him seriously before that moment, and they did after,” he said.
The next victory for the Republicans came in November 1987, when they were able to pass a bill for a tax increase through the House, winning by just one vote. Kornacki said a week after, Gingrich held a press conference filing an ethics complaint against then House Speaker Jim Wright, who was later forced to resign.
This momentum continued up until 1994, when the Republicans took majority of the House and Gingrich became the Speaker of the House, which allowed for him to band the Republican Party to stand in absolute opposition against then President Bill Clinton (D-Ark.) in any bill he wanted to pass, Kornacki said.
While it seemed that Gingrich’s vision for his party seemed within reach, once Gingrich had to actually govern, Kornacki said the label switched from “Red America” to “Blue America." In 1995, Gingrich believed he would be able to address the scope and size of government, and thus pushed a bill that would cut Medicare funding in order to balance the national budget.
Against Gingrich’s expectations, the public sided with Clinton, who vetoed the bill.
“Conceptually, philosophically, if you look at polls there’s a lot of support for the idea of limited government, small government,” Kornacki said. “But people still like Medicare, they still like social security and the politics of moving on that are complicated.”
After his talk, Kornacki took several questions from the audience about topics such as the possibility of Bill Weld taking down President Donald J. Trump and the influence of social media on politics. Once the questions ended, members of the audience lined up to get their copies of his book signed by Kornacki.