Steve Kornacki

To those who follow the news, it may seem like the Democratic presidential primary has been going on for years and will never end, but the New Hampshire votes are now less than two months away. How is the race shaping up, and what kind of political landscape will the winner face?

Veteran reporter Steve Kornacki, a national political reporter for MSNBC and NBC, will discuss the race at an upcoming free event at the Princeton Public Library on Wednesday, January 8, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.princetonlibrary.org.

The 2020 election is set to be one of the most polarized ever, if polls are to be believed. Kornacki delved into how this state of affairs came to be in his book, “The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism.”

In an excerpt from the book, Kornacki looks to the Reagan era for the source of today’s partisan divide, and how Bill Clinton and Mario Cuomo helped reshape the Democratic party after another devastating defeat in 1984:

Bill Clinton came to San Francisco for the Democratic National Convention hungry for attention. It was July, 1984, and the second-term Arkansas governor, not yet 40 years old, knew where to find opportunity.

The convention itself would be a morose affair, with party regulars dutifully ratifying former vice president Walter Mondale as their nominee. Four years earlier, Mondale had been number two on the Jimmy Carter-led ticket that surrendered 44 states to Ronald Reagan. For a while, Democrats had believed Reagan’s triumph to be a fluke, especially when a nasty recession pushed unemployment to over 10 percent early in his term. But by the summer of ’84, the economy was resurgent, patriotism was in full bloom (Los Angeles would soon host the Summer Olympics), and America’s grandfatherly president was enjoying some of the best poll numbers of his tenure. Democrats, a survey of delegates revealed, were significantly less optimistic about Mondale’s prospects than they had been about Carter’s back in 1980. Even the truest of true believers knew it: Reagan was going to swamp them — again.

This meant the race for the next time around was already on. Once Mondale suffered his inevitable defeat in November, the search would commence for a new leader for the party, someone to carry the torch in 1988, when Reagan would be forbidden from running again and the country might, after eight years of Republican rule, be ready for a break. The conversation was already under way, and Clinton was intent on forcing his name into it.

His ambition had never been parochial or regional. It was national office Clinton coveted, and he’d spent his postadolescent life maneuvering to attain it — Boys Nation delegate, Georgetown undergrad, intern for a powerful senator, Rhodes Scholar, law school at Yale. Those early years had been about making personal connections, mixing with the national power class and those who would one day join it, charming them with his warmth and charisma, dazzling them with his intellect, his sharp political instincts, his potential.

Clinton became the youngest ever elected governor of Arkansas, at age 32 in 1978, but suffered a crushing defeat in 1980. Two years later he retook the governor’s mansion, having gained a better understanding of the sensibilities in the southern, conservative state.

Continues Kornacki:

This was the Bill Clinton who arrived in San Francisco for the ’84 convention. The dark years had sharpened him, instilling in him a new mindfulness of the price to be paid for offending the public’s sensibilities. He measured his actions more carefully now, but the ultimate goal never changed, and by now he was beginning to see it. He would win reelection in the fall (this time it really would be a layup) and again in 1986, and then there’d be a wide-open Democratic race for president in 1988. His moment was coming. What he needed was for others to start seeing it too, and the convention was an opportunity to charm the national bigwigs.

Political coverage in 1984 was still driven by major newspapers and broadcast television networks. So it was a coup for Clinton when he won a mention in a Washington Post story the Sunday before the convention. It was written by David Broder, one of the foremost shapers of elite opinion, and it explored what Broder portrayed as an identity crisis for a Democratic Party on the verge of its second consecutive national beatdown. Clinton’s appearance was a brief cameo in a three-thousand-word story (“I don’t know that we’ve made a lot of progress in honing our message to the country”), but also a signal to Broder’s powerful audience that this young governor merited keeping an eye on.

The real coup for Clinton was this: He would get to speak. And not in some dead-of-the-afternoon time slot when no one would be watching. The Mondale campaign was putting him in prime time on opening night — 9 p.m. on the East Coast. Preceding Clinton would be a short film narrated by Hal Linden, star of Barney Miller, just off the air but still popular to millions of Americans, recalling Harry Truman and his famously improbable victory 36 years earlier. It was the best (and only) card convention organizers could play to argue that Mondale wasn’t doomed, and Clinton was there to reinforce the message. The audience would be significant. Even in 1984, the networks were scaling back their coverage of conventions, which had evolved into little more than party-produced infomercials, and viewership was shrinking. But this was all relative: as Clinton made his way to the podium, nearly 40 percent of all households watching television were tuned to ABC, CBS, or NBC for the convention.

Clinton hailed the late president’s defiant, populist spirit. “If Truman were here,” he said, “he’d remind us that in 1948 he was further behind and the Democrats were more divided than is the case today. And he’d tell us to scrap the nostalgia and quit whining about our internal problems and get on with the business of taking our message to the country.”

“The real way to honor Harry Truman,” he declared, “is to wage a campaign that would make him as proud of us as we are of him.”

It was a well-received call to action, crisp and forcefully delivered. The delegates cheered and Clinton beamed. All the big-name anchors — Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw, to say nothing of luminaries like Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and David Brinkley — were in the convention hall, along with just about every major political scribe in America. Clinton wanted their attention, needed it, and now he’d gotten it, and he’d made a nice impression, too. It was just the kind of win he needed.

And a few minutes later, it was forgotten forever.

If Clinton craved validation from political and media elites, the next featured speaker on opening night in San Francisco was his opposite. The delegation breakfasts, the late-night parties, the chance hotel lobby encounters with power brokers, all the priceless networking opportunities that come with a national convention: Mario Cuomo conveyed indifference, even hostility, to all of it. It was a character trait that would, in the years to come, only magnify the impact of what happened this night.

Cuomo was in town at the invitation of Mondale, who’d scored a crucial victory in New York’s March primary with an assist from the governor. Now Mondale had deputized Cuomo to deliver the keynote address. But there was no preconvention schmoozing for the New York governor, and there’d be no lingering afterward. He liked his own bed, hated to travel, and was fond of telling anyone who’d listen about the gravity of his responsibilities in Albany. This was a day trip for Cuomo, nothing more.

Expectations were minimal. The fifty-two-year-old Cuomo had only been elected governor two years earlier. It had been a big upset, Cuomo rallying liberals and organized labor to stun his longtime rival, New York City mayor Ed Koch, in the Democratic primary. Even then, Cuomo only won the general election in a squeaker. Back home, he was a formidable figure, but his national profile was limited. At first glance, Cuomo seemed like just another of a familiar type. He was urban, ethnic, and liberal in the tradition of FDR — a friend to labor unions and the proliferating assortment of interest groups now operating within the Democratic Party. It was organization men like Cuomo who’d delivered the nomination to Mondale over Gary Hart and his appeal to a new, more suburban and machine-averse breed of Democrat.

More discerning followers of politics knew something else, though: the guy could talk. Introduced by Mark White, the governor of Texas, Cuomo walked to the podium to polite cheers. Then, the opening, jarring and deliberate: “Please allow me to skip the stories and the poetry and the temptation to deal in nice but vague rhetoric. Let me instead use this valuable opportunity to deal immediately with the questions that should determine this election and that we all know are vital to the American people.” The chattering in the hall came to a halt. Now he had their attention.

Cuomo put a new twist on one of Reagan’s favorite lines, one he popularized during his 1980 campaign and used throughout his first term. “In many ways,” he said, “we are a shining city on a hill. But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory.” He spoke of another side of this city, a side Reagan might not see “from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well” — a place suffering with unemployment, poverty, crime, and an ever-fraying safety net. “There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places that you don’t visit in your shining city.”

The Moscone Center was silent. This was not the speech anyone had been expecting. Where were the built-in applause lines, the corny jokes, all the usual cliches? There was an urgency and purpose to Cuomo’s cadence that commanded the room to sit up and pay attention. He had them transfixed. What he was describing, Cuomo now told the delegates, was nothing less than a fault line separating their party from Reagan’s.

“It’s an old story,” he said. “It’s as old as our history. The difference between Democrats and Republicans has always been measured in courage and confidence. The Republicans — the Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail. ‘The strong’ — ‘The strong,’ they tell us, ‘will inherit the land.’

“We Democrats believe in something else. We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact — and we have, more than once. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt lifted himself from his wheelchair to lift this nation from its knees — wagon train after wagon train, to new frontiers of education, housing, peace; the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge that family; lifting them up into the wagon on the way; blacks and Hispanics, and people of every ethnic group, and Native Americans — all those struggling to build their families and claim some small share of America.

“For nearly 50 years we carried them all to new levels of comfort, and security, and dignity, even affluence. And remember this: some of us in this room today are here only because this nation had that kind of confidence. And it would be wrong to forget that.”

For 40 minutes, he continued like this, rarely permitting the audience to interrupt him, as if fanfare would cheapen the message. His party had come to San Francisco aware of its dim November prospects. It was the height of the Reagan era, the tone for which had been set four years earlier when the new president used his inaugural address to declare that “government is not the solution to our problem — it is our problem.” Old-style liberalism had never felt so out of date, so politically toxic. But in this moment, Cuomo was making his party forget all of this. He was summoning their pride in the America that their values had built — the America that Reagan and his crew were now threatening to dismantle. It was a valentine to the New Deal legacy of the Democratic Party, and an intensely personal one. Cuomo spoke of his father, an Italian immigrant who’d run a grocery store in the South Jamaica section of Queens.

“I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work fifteen and sixteen hours a day,” he said. “I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example.”

The cameras caught delegates in tears. He never did mention the name of Walter Mondale, not that anyone minded. What he was saying felt bigger than one candidate, one election. He ended with a call to action: “For the love of God: please make this nation remember how futures are built!” Then he thanked the crowd, walked offstage, got on a plane, and flew back home.

He was all anyone in San Francisco could talk about. For years, Reagan, a trained actor and master of public performance, had flummoxed them by forging such an easy, natural connection with Americans. To these exasperated, beaten-down Democrats, the governor of New York was nothing short of a revelation: at long last they had discovered their own Great Communicator.

Mario Cuomo had come to San Francisco just another Democratic governor from the Northeast. He left the next big thing in American politics. It was the kind of sudden, only-in-America turn of fortune that Bill Clinton had been straining to achieve. Now, without even seeming to want it, Cuomo had pulled it off for himself.

Their defeat that fall was worse than even the most pessimistic of Democrats had braced for. Voters went to the polls in all fifty states on November 6, 1984, and in forty-nine of them they sided with Reagan. All that was left for Democrats, besides the eternally loyal District of Columbia, was Mondale’s home state of Minnesota, and even there the president came a mere thirty-eight hundred votes from triumphing. Never before had someone come so close to pulling off a clean sweep of all fifty states. All told, Reagan took 59 percent of the national popular vote, his margin of victory a staggering seventeen million votes.

Nothing the Democrats tried in 1984 had worked. Putting a woman, New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, on a national ticket for the first time? Reagan still got 58 percent of the female vote. Mondale’s decision to double down on the party’s traditional alliance with organized labor? Reagan still grabbed nearly half the votes cast from union households. More than a quarter of self-identified Democrats deserted their party and voted to reelect Reagan. About the only bedrock Democratic constituency left was minority voters. African Americans backed Mondale at a 91 percent clip, while Latinos gave him 66 percent of their votes. But the American electorate of 1984 was 89 percent white — and whites went for the president two to one. As beatings go, this one was thorough.

Worse for Democrats, this was becoming the norm. Once upon a time, from FDR all the way through LBJ, with only the interruption of Eisenhower, they’d been the dominant party in presidential politics. No longer. Since 1968, they’d now lost four of five White House races — three in landslides. Reagan’s initial victory in 1980, dismissed as a near impossibility when the campaign began, had shaken them to the core. But now it seemed that everything they’d done in response to it had only made their plight more desperate. The talk now was of a Republican lock on the White House. How had Americans become so allergic to the idea of a Democratic presidency? What could they do about it? Who could rescue them?

The two-decade decline of liberalism was congealing into despair on the left, a sense that winning back the White House — if it was even possible anymore — would require some kind of traumatic ideological makeover. But now in this darkness, as if on cue, came Cuomo. What if all they’d been missing was him? What if there was nothing wrong with liberalism that couldn’t be fixed by one magnetic and morally righteous orator? Revival without compromise. This was the promise of Mario Cuomo.

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