Ask any original Reaganite which candidate, in their heart of hearts, they would most like to see win his race this year — any candidate in the country — and they surely will tell you that Jeff Bell is their man.
Most NRO readers know that Bell is running a campaign for U.S. Senate in New Jersey that is extremely low on money and extremely full of principle. If they pay attention, they also know that incumbent Cory Booker is a flim-flam artist, airy as a bubble blown from chewing gum, insubstantial as a nylon stocking in a bramble patch. Booker fabricated some, or most, or even all of the amazing tales of his rescuing damsels in distress, holding a gunshot victim in his arms as the victim took his last breath, and mentoring a drug pusher named T-Bone. Booker’s ethics in office have been questionable, too, as has been his record of accomplishment as mayor of a city wracked by crime.
But the reason Reaganites so profoundly desire a Bell victory has little to do with Booker’s deficiencies and everything to do with Bell’s abiding virtues. Thirty-six years after first becoming a national hero to conservatives, Bell again is entering the lists armed only with wisdom, courage, uncommon decency, and a rapier intellect.
If you weren’t around in 1978, when Bell pulled a major upset by defeating liberal Republican incumbent senator Clifford Case in the primary, it might be difficult to fully comprehend the significance of Bell’s achievement or the permanent place Bell enjoys in the conservative pantheon. Ronald Reagan had fallen just short in his presidential nomination bid in 1976; the conservative movement worried that Reagan’s near-miss might have been its high-water mark, rather than what they hoped was the start of a rising political tide. Bell’s primary win suggested the latter.
It mattered little, in the larger scheme of things, that Bell then was defeated by Bill Bradley, the apparently sainted ex-Knick who would have triumphed that year over any candidate short of George Washington reincarnate. The proof that a movement conservative could defeat an establishment incumbent (Case) was as electrifying as Franklin’s kite experiment. The fact that Bell gained traction while campaigning on what were then seen as “radical” tax cuts helped convince Reagan that the supply-side theories he had begun to embrace in the late summer of 1976 were saleable as a campaign centerpiece.
(I was just 14 then, living in New Orleans, and didn’t know Clifford Case from Clifford the Big Red Dog. But I well remember one day my father, an original Sharon Conference conservative, became almost giddy when some guy named Bell won a race in New Jersey. Bell’s ideas, my dad said excitedly, were the proverbial wave of the future. Activists across the country felt the same, just knowing in their bones that Bell’s primary triumph was a harbinger of better days.)
And Bell never went away. For three more decades he wrote trenchant policy analyses, gave good political advice, worked to keep Republicans moored to Reaganite principles. In the latter half of the last decade, when old Reaganites would occasionally gather for private dinners, there he would be — not speaking often, not speaking loudly, but always speaking with insight and conviction, his words always considered as the pronouncements of a sage. Even if he pushed ideas that at first might sound abstruse, he always spoke of them in the context of how they would affect middle America.
And, to the extent that he has been able to use mostly “free media” to be heard in this year’s Senate race, New Jersey’s middle has responded favorably to this 70-year-old guy with his ties to Reagan and the courage of his convictions. (His paid media so far has been restricted to radio: $300,000 raised through September 30, with another $75,000 from a more recent fundraiser with Governor Chris Christie, doesn’t go very far in New Jersey, to say the least.)
When I caught up with Bell by phone Friday afternoon, he was riding the encouragement from a new poll out that day from Stockton College that found him closing within nine points of Booker, 48–39, with the incumbent not even able to break 50 percent when “leaners” were included in the tally. Booker’s negative job ratings were up from 37 percent (in the previous Stockton poll) to 42, his job approval at 50 — while Bell, a conservative Republican in left-leaning New Jersey without the money to fend off the usual Democratic attacks, enjoys remarkably positive 38–18 positive/negative ratings.
“I’m having a blast,” Bell said. “I’m 70 years old, not trying to start a career, just saying exactly what I think, and it’s really been fun. And voters seem to sense that, and seem to like a candidate who’s willing to give his views honestly whether or not there’s any evidence those views are popular in his state.”
Meanwhile, he said, “Booker is not acting like a candidate who has this put away. He has started kicking the cr** out of me; he’s started this war-on-women nonsense. Why would he shift into the war-on-women theme if the race is over? I think he’s worried about some of the corruption issues that are out there.”
The Reagan connection — Bell was a key Reagan aide as far back as 1974 — has played well, too, Bell said:
People are fascinated with Ronald Reagan, even people with no conscious memory of his presidency. They know it was a time when things were working. It’s been very gratifying to me that Reagan is not considered ancient history, not considered irrelevant to the average voter.
The other aspect that I find very helpful is reminding people that in the late 1970s, we were supposedly running out of resources. We had malaise, gas lines — it seemed to many people hopeless, but Reagan didn’t believe it was hopeless. I remind people that things changed very quickly when Reagan changed the bad policies. I firmly believe that the American people themselves have not lost their mojo today, either. If all the barriers of bad policies are removed, the American economy will expand explosively, just as it did in the 1980s.
If Obama’s popularity keeps tanking, as it already is doing in New Jersey just as it has done almost everywhere else, Bell thinks the closely allied Booker’s popularity will keep falling as well. Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has persuasively posited that “candidates of the president’s party have tended to converge on the president’s job approval” and are more likely than not to do so again. If Bell can put a little money on TV — he figures the drop-dead date for contributions to be useful for that purpose is October 27, eight days before the election — he thinks he can mount a late charge. Booker has dodged all debates until now, putting all his eggs in the basket of an October 26 debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters. If Bell can outshine him in that one debate, and follow up with good ads, who knows what can happen?
Matthew Continetti, writing here at NRO, has called Bell “the most interesting candidate in the world.” George Will called him “idiosyncratic and invaluable.” If some national donors would just open their wallets a little bit for him, there’s still a chance we could all call him “Senator Bell.” Not just for Reagan conservatives, but for middle-Americans everywhere, it would be a title with a very nice ring.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.