"Welcome to our campaign headquarters,” Jeff Bell said to an out-of-town reporter the other evening, standing in the lobby of a convention hotel here, hard off the Interstate. He wasn’t kidding: This is indeed the headquarters of the Jeff Bell for U.S. Senate campaign, for the moment anyway. He could do worse. The lobby is airy and spacious, the bathrooms are clean and commodious, and the location can’t be beat.
A half-dozen fresh-faced young volunteers were perched on sofas and overstuffed chairs, laptops open, plugged into the WiFi the hotel provides free of charge.
Bell looked them over good-naturedly. “Our campaign staff,” he said. Three of them are his children.
If there’s a single phrase that summarizes the Bell campaign on the cusp of Labor Day, it’s one he repeats often: “We’re broke.” The encampment in the hotel lobby is strong evidence that he’s not kidding about this either. In June he beat a motley of candidates in the New Jersey Republican primary and earned the right to challenge Democratic senator Cory Booker, who is running for his first full term after winning the seat left open last year by the death of Frank Lautenberg. Booker is a well-known former mayor of Newark and the love object of a swooning press, both in-state and out. He’s the heavy favorite in navy blue New Jersey, and Bell has been stymied at every turn in his effort to raise money for his campaign.
The national party, notably the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has refused to help a race that most Washington chin-pullers and green eyeshades agree is hopeless. “The day after the primary, we called them,” Bell said about the NRSC. “Five times. They wouldn’t even return our calls. They won’t meet with us when we go to Washington.”
Even independent groups like the Club for Growth or the Senate Conservatives Fund, who brag of their daring and courage in supporting conservative insurgents, show no willingness to pitch in. It doesn’t help that Booker already has $3.5 million in cash on hand, thanks to a career spent cultivating Wall Street moneymen. If you were mayor of Newark, you’d spend a lot of time in Manhattan too.
What frustrates Bell and his many well-wishers is that the race against Booker may not be as hopeless as the spreadsheets suggest. At 55 percent to 44 percent, Booker’s special election victory last year over a self-funding Republican unknown was weaker than most people expected. A few weeks ago, in early August, a poll by Quinnipiac University of registered voters showed Booker’s support at 47 percent, below the 50 percent mark that any healthy incumbent should expect. Amazingly, Bell was hard on his heels at 37 percent, even though the same poll showed that fewer than 25 percent knew who he was. A CBS/New York Times poll—this time of likely voters—put Bell within 7 points of Booker.
Bell has been here before—or close, anyway. In 1978 he entered the New Jersey Republican primary against the incumbent senator, Clifford Case, an exemplar of the liberal Republicans who once roamed the Northeast but are now found only in museums of natural history, stuffed in extinction as they were in life. To the amazement of everyone, Bell included, he deposed Case easily, though he went on to lose the general election, badly, to the celebrated basketball star Bill Bradley. As it transpired, Case was the last Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from New Jersey. Bell tried again four years later, running against another liberal Republican in the 1982 Senate primary, and lost.
He decided to run only earlier this year, he says, “around the time of the Super Bowl.” He had a week to roll up the 1,000 signatures necessary to get on the ballot. On its face the decision might look impetuous, not to say quixotic. Bell is 70, a well-regarded Washington advocate and policy entrepreneur, author of two highly original books on American politics, and a genuine intellectual—not the profile of a typical Jersey candidate. He hasn’t lived in the state since his last lost election 30 years ago. Tall and gray and angular, deliberate in manner and speech, he has none of Booker’s telegenic bonhomie.
His decision to run, far from impetuous, came as a kind of last resort, the anticlimax of a “long, rather involved process.” For several years now Bell and his associates at the American Principles Project, one of the many advocacy groups and think tanks he has either founded or led, have been making the rounds on Capitol Hill. They’ve been trying to persuade congressmen and senators to sign on to his grand policy project, or what some with a continental flair might call his idée fixe: taming the Federal Reserve’s loose-money regime by pinning the U.S. dollar to the price of gold.
They knocked on door after door, took meeting after meeting. “Nobody would listen,” he says. He shouldn’t have been surprised, and wasn’t. Republican and Democratic officeholders alike have been corrupted by easy money: Zero interest rates artificially lower payments to finance government debt, disguising the annual deficit and making it easier to spend, spend, spend. “We couldn’t even get anyone to give a single speech.”
Frustrated on Capitol Hill, Bell turned to the hinterland for a candidate to take up the cause in a Senate race. “I’m convinced that unless there’s something new on the Republican menu in 2014,” he says, “there won’t be anything new to offer in 2016, and Republicans will probably lose again.”
As a veteran of Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns, Bell clings to the antique notion that the purpose of a political campaign is to embody an idea, and that a successful campaign can force the political class to take the idea seriously, no matter how far outside the mainstream. Many Reaganauts credit Bell with convincing Reagan to adopt a proposal for radical tax-rate reductions as he prepared to run for president in 1980, a policy endorsed by a cult-like circle of supply-side enthusiasts and condemned as insane by right-thinkers of both parties. After Reagan won, Congress passed the tax cuts with bipartisan, if grudging, support. Marginal rates on income fell by one-third, and the course of the American economy was forever altered.
Bell came up empty in his search for a senatorial candidate who would make the gold standard the central issue of a campaign this fall. This left him nowhere to turn but the mirror.
“I’m a one-issue candidate,” he says over dinner in the hotel restaurant, with his staff tapping away across the lobby. “I don’t really want to get into state issues. With no money, my only real opportunity is to be known for just one thing.”
So Bell, an eloquent and ardent pro-lifer, defense hawk, and foreign-policy interventionist, ties nearly every issue he’s asked about back to the destructive power of paper money. He spent $90,000 on his primary campaign. Almost $60,000 of that went to mail a three-page letter to a list of 99,000 Republicans who had voted in the 2013 primary. The letter is charming and impressive in its earnest refusal to pander and condescend to its audience, or to affect the breezy tone of typical campaign come-ons. Breeziness is probably hard to do anyway when you’re talking about the gold standard.
“Why is it so important to return to gold-dollar convertibilitynow?” his letter asked the unsuspecting Republican voters of New Jersey. “Things have gone too far for limited half measures to work” [overemphasis in the original]. A return to the gold standard, he concedes, would of course result in higher interest rates, as the dollar sought its own level of value without direction from the Fed.
“Washington’s political elites and Wall Street’s financial elites are deathly afraid that cutting off the dollar printing press will hasten a new financial crisis,” the letter goes on. “They may well be right. What they don’t want to think about is that a new financial crisis will happen anyway. [Meanwhile], the U.S. economy is trapped in a bleak landscape and the middle class continues to be ground down.”
It’s not exactly the old Reaganite “Morning in America.” But then again, it’s not morning in America. Bell credits the letter with his primary victory, precisely because average Americans agree with his diagnosis, even if they remain uncertain about his cure.
“It’s effective because people are puzzled,” he says. “They’re being told we’re in a recovery. They’re being told things are getting better. And they know they’re not.”
Consider the cost of living—a persistent concern despite officialdom’s insistence that inflation is under control.
“Well, sure, the price of an iPad may fall by half,” he says. “But people know their wages are not keeping up with the prices they pay regularly. The price of food, energy, medical care—all going up while wages stay flat. You tell people inflation is not a problem, they’ll laugh in your face.”
Bell’s difficulty as a political candidate isn’t necessarily his single-minded advocacy of the gold standard—it’s that the gold standard would end the financial bacchanal being enjoyed by the wealthy people who finance political campaigns, and they show nothing but hostility to Bell’s gold-plated party-poopery. Chris Christie, New Jersey’s Republican governor, has agreed to host two fundraisers for Bell this fall, but beyond that it’s not clear where the money will come from.
“Christie has been great,” he says. “I had a 12-minute phone conversation with him not long after the primary. Christie is not my problem. My problem is being shut out of Washington”—the Republican money machine stoked by the partiers of Wall Street and increasingly disconnected from ordinary folk back home, who are dreading the morning after.
Nevertheless, says Bell, “I’m having a lot of fun. I’m 70 years old—I don’t want a career in politics. I’m relaxed about who I am and what I’m doing.
“A lot of the experts who specialize in telling you what voters think say you can’t talk about what I’m talking about. They say voters just won’t understand it. But that’s not what I’m seeing.”
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.