Jeff Bell was a reform conservative before it was cool. He’s spent his career arguing with a risk-averse Republican establishment. He pushed Ronald Reagan to embrace the supply-side doctrine of tax cuts before deficit reduction. He spent the 1990s warning the GOP that its tax policy favored investment capital over human capital, corporate interests over working families. He designed a family-friendly flat tax that reduced payroll taxes, increased the child tax credit, taxed capital gains and regular income at the same rate, and ended business expensing. Payroll tax relief and a generous child tax credit are elements of today’s reform conservatism. Bell was there first.
Bell’s career has been a mix of thought and action. He was born and raised in New Jersey, and graduated from Columbia University. He fought in Vietnam. He was an aide to Richard Nixon and to Ronald Reagan, and was active in the conservative movement more generally. In 1978, he upset liberal Republican Clifford Case in the New Jersey Senate primary, losing to Bill Bradley in the general election. He’s the rare political consultant whose views of the world are more expansive than those expressed on Morning Joe.
While advising clients, Bell published two books—both recommended—and articles for National Review and the Weekly Standard. I got to know him when I joined the Standard in 2003. I’ve been in awe of his theoretical and practical intelligence ever since.
I once asked Bell which books best represent the future-oriented, dynamic, cheerfully populist, optimistic, supply-side worldview of President Reagan and Jack Kemp. He thought for a moment and told me to read The Cultural Pattern in American Politics and The Transatlantic Persuasion by Robert Kelly, and The Economy in Mind by Warren Brookes. Try getting that response from James Carville.
Bell repeated history in June of this year when he won, for the second time, the New Jersey Republican primary for Senate. He’s continued to surprise a lot of people by keeping the race between him and incumbent Cory Booker within 10 points. The press has largely ignored his campaign for horserace reasons. Washingtonians don’t think he’ll win.
The other day I watched an interview Bell gave to NJTV news. The questions dealt with process: where the polls stood, how much money has been raised, what the "ground game" looks like. But the questions missed the point. The reason to study Bell’s campaign isn’t his social media strategy. It’s his agenda.
Bell isn’t just running against Booker. He’s also running against the Federal Reserve’s zero interest rate policy, which began in 2008 under Ben Bernanke and continues under Janet Yellen. Defenders of the Fed say its actions since the financial crisis have prevented a depression and sustained the recovery that began in June 2009. Bell says the Fed is responsible for the dreariness of that recovery—its shallow growth, its mediocre job creation. He says the Fed has helped deficit spenders in government, CEOs, and Wall Street bankers and investors. It's harmed consumers and savers.
"While Washington has gotten free financing from the Fed, families planning for college, retirees living on a fixed income, and everyone else hoping to earn a decent return on their savings rather than speculating in the markets have fallen behind," Bell writes on his website. "It is a travesty that our monetary policy has deprived seniors, parents, and savers in billions of income so Congress can rack up more debt."
The value of the dollar is the top issue of his campaign. Bell attacks Yellen and the Fed as much as he attacks Booker. Indeed, one of his chief attacks is that Booker voted for Yellen. Bell has a plan to establish a new gold standard. Most importantly, though, he frames his agenda in terms of "restoring middle class prosperity." The economy remains voters’ top concern, but voters continue to resist Republican economics as favoring business, the rich, and the connected. By focusing on the Federal Reserve, money, and the rising cost of living, Bell is doing more than trying to win an election. He is reshaping the Republican economic message.
Most of the GOP candidates on the trail this year will criticize the Obama economy. But, when it comes to saying what they would do differently, they won’t be more specific than calls for budget cuts and income and corporate tax cuts. They will be parroting the GOP message of the last 30 years, a message that has been producing diminishing returns.
Bell’s diagnosis is radical, comprehensive, and visceral. He knows that voters who aren’t conservative find it difficult to draw the connection between the Balanced Budget Amendment and their daily life. Talk about how these voters are paying more for less, though, and you are likely to find an audience.
I have become leery of single explanations for our troubles. I cannot say that adopting a gold standard would magically restore American prosperity. But I do think the case for the Federal Reserve has been overstated. The Fed can’t take credit for avoiding a depression while shirking responsibility for our subpar economy. The news is so disappointing that some economists have said we are in the middle of a long-term secular stagnation.
Since history runs only once, and in just one direction, there is no way of proving the counterfactual that things would be worse without zero interest rates and quantitative easing. The progressive heirs to Franklin Roosevelt’s belief in "bold, persistent experimentation" should be the last people to dismiss proposals from outside of the mainstream.
It is precisely the outlandishness of Bell’s vision that makes it worthy of attention. Even as America is rocked by domestic malaise and global crises, our elites return to the same old ideas. This should be a moment for contrarian original thinking. Confidence in government is low. The gap between the public and the caste is wide.
Obamacare is less popular than ever, yet Republicans don’t talk about it. A majority wants to see the illegal immigrant children from Central America returned home—in fact, a majority wants to see reductions in legal immigration—yet Washington’s priority remains comprehensive immigration reform. Americans overwhelmingly support Israel in its fight against terrorists, yet the picture painted by the media is one of Israeli aggression and Palestinian helplessness.
If you relied only on polling data, you’d be knowledgeable of the priorities and wishes of voters. But you wouldn’t have a clue about the priorities and wishes, the buzzwords, action items, clichés, and worldview, of the bipartisan American elite. For that, you'd have to turn to the media, whose concerns are entirely orthogonal, and even harmful, to the interests of the American people.
Nowhere is the divergence clearer than in perceptions of inflation. It’s true that the rampant inflation some conservatives predicted when the Fed announced its "extraordinary measures" has not appeared. But it is also true that inflation is difficult to measure, that growth in wages has been slow, that the cost of health care and tuition continue to rise. Voters complain about rising prices even as experts say the voters don’t know what they are talking about. Who is a politician better off siding with?
Last year, American Principles in Action, a group associated with Jeff Bell, released its own autopsy of the 2012 election. The report noted that, after unemployment, voters in the 2012 exit poll said "rising prices" were their top concern. "What voters dubbed ‘rising prices’ is really a declining standard of living," the report said, "which many perceive to be the consequence of the ‘shrinking value of the dollar,’ as one Ohio focus group participant told us." Experts may dismiss Jeff Bell’s calls for monetary reform, but that focus group participant in Ohio is likely to listen—and vote.
The report issued six recommendations to GOP candidates: Don’t avoid social issues but use partial-birth abortion and Common Core as wedges against your opponent; use the social issues to appeal to religious Hispanic voters; call for an end to the Fed’s inflationary policies; attack Obamacare for lessening the American standard of living; go after "the student loan racket"; and celebrate middle-class workers instead of "job creators." As far as I can tell, Jeff Bell is the only Republican Senate nominee to adopt such an agenda wholeheartedly.
While I disagree with him on immigration reform, and believe an amnesty would hurt precisely those Americans he is trying to help, I am excited to see, for once, a candidate try something bold and original. Jeff Bell may be a lone voice in 2014, but he was also a lone voice calling for supply-side tax cuts in 1978.
Thirty-five years ago, Bell prophesied the future of conservative politics. He’s doing the same today. My friend has become, quite unexpectedly, the most interesting candidate in the world.