There are three key points conservatives should know about Jeffrey Bell. The first is that he was the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey in 1978 and then again in 2014. The two campaigns were remarkably similar. They were both short on cash and long on ideas, almost paradigmatically so. Bell ran respectable races against two prodigious Democratic vote-getters, Bill Bradley the first time and Cory Booker the second. Bell lost both times, but in running powerfully didactic campaigns he pulled the general electorate, and in some respects his opponents, closer to his own positions.
The second bullet point is that, over the past half-century, Bell has been one of the most effective policy entrepreneurs of his generation. Most conspicuously, he has developed and helped to secure a prominent place in the conservative coalition for the cluster of populist issues known as social conservatism.
More recently, he has brought his considerable powers of analysis and advocacy to bear on the Federal Reserve. It seems likely that Fed reform will be high on the agenda of an incoming Trump administration and possibly, if the redistributionist fever breaks, somewhere to be found on the agenda of a Clinton administration.
Along with a handful of indefatigable colleagues, Bell has also kept alive these many years the prospect of a return to the gold standard. (Not to worry. Bell is the only gold bug of my acquaintance who doesn’t pin you to the living-room wall just as the hostess rings the dinner bell.)
I can vouch personally for another policy success. It was Jeff Bell’s voice, logical and insistent, that was indispensable in converting candidate Ronald Reagan to supply-side fiscalism in 1980. Had Reagan not embraced Kemp-Roth-sized tax cuts, in my judgment, the Gipper would not have been elected and his revolution would have been stillborn.
The third thing you should know about Jeff Bell is that, for all his ideological fire, he is no Beltway barker. He’s a quiet and respectful man who rarely calls attention to himself. Old-timers can recall only a single anecdote from his days as a young writer for National Review. It seems that one day, for reasons fully explicated at the time but by now long forgotten, Bell requested that NR change his byline from Ed Bell to Jeff Bell. WFB, who according to plausible family legend could speak in rounded paragraphs well before his second birthday, was momentarily struck wordless. The silence was broken by NR publisher William Rusher, who straight-faced that the proposed change amounted to “a remarkable turn of events in the history of journalism.” Thus it was that, just as Marion Morrison would one day become John Wayne, Ed Bell would henceforward be known as Jeff Bell.
I asked Bell about the current plight.
Freeman: You’ve been a champion for some years of a populist brand of conservatism. Happy now?
Bell: Yes and no. I’m disappointed that no conservative candidate for president — other than, partially, Ted Cruz — ran with Reagan’s combination of social and economic conservatism. But this very fact, coupled with Republican non-performance when we had 21st-century congressional majorities, led to a populist candidate emerging from outside the movement and then dominating the nomination fight.
I didn’t predict the rise of Donald Trump, but he could wind up as a net plus for conservatism — or not.
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Freeman: I’ll bite. In what way could Trump wind up as a net plus for conservatism, with the latter defined for this purpose as Buckleyite conservatism?
Bell: The key political development in the post-Reagan era is the decline of conservative economics. Beginning with James Carville’s “It’s the economy, stupid” strategy in 1992, Republicans have not won the economic debate in a single presidential cycle. Moreover, as weak as the Obama economy has been, economic growth in 15 years of Democratic presidencies has been superior to the twelve years of Bush presidencies.
Voters continue to blame George W. Bush more than Barack Obama for the economic hard times that began in 2007. Conventional conservative economics of the type espoused by Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio lost every primary this year but Ohio and Puerto Rico. They barely mentioned wage stagnation or work-force decline and offered what sounded like trivial and incremental fixes. There’s no reason to believe that a Republican with such a limited agenda would fare better in the general election.
Freeman: And Trump, in your view, won the economic debate during the primaries and is capable of winning it in the general?
Bell: Primary voters preferred Trump in large part because he expressed outrage over the economic decline of the Bush and Obama presidencies — and confidence that a Trump presidency can deliver big change. The jury is out on whether if elected he could deliver on economic revitalization. He certainly wouldn’t get a long honeymoon.
Freeman: Let’s play that out a bit. Suppose that Trump is elected on a wave of optimism, or at least on a wave of stirred economic anxiety. What “big changes” could he effect that might accurately be described as conservative economics?
Bell: We have now arrived at my hobbyhorse.
Freeman: Uh-oh. My sainted mother told me to beware men riding hobbyhorses.
Bell: I don’t see how Trump or any other future president can fix the economy without reversing the takeover of the American economy by the Federal Reserve. Better trade deals won’t be enough unless the ultimate cause of economic dysfunction is addressed.
Freeman: Other than a return to the gold standard, what policy changes would you be recommending to President Trump?
Bell: For the last three-plus decades, Congress has approved only one or at most two “big changes” a new president asks for in his first year. For Reagan and George W. Bush, it was a tax cut. For Clinton, a tax increase. For Obama, the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus. Only George H. W. Bush failed to ask for a big change in his first year.
I believe that the Fed’s top-down management of the U.S. economy is the single biggest barrier to a resumption of broad-based prosperity. A new president should focus on Fed reform. Does that mean asking for legislation to return to a gold-backed dollar? Not necessarily. But serious reform has to address what the Fed is doing with zero interest rates, quantitative easing, too-big-to-fail, and all the rest.
Freeman: Would you recommend that a new president abolish the Fed?
Bell: No. But it should return to the functions for which it was originally set up: managing the banking system and serving as a lender of last resort in the event of a run on the banks.
Freeman: I have to ask you about the social issues. For years you argued that social conservatism was not only a moral imperative but a winning issue. Given what appears to be a seismic shift in public opinion on gay rights, especially, would you make the same argument today?
Bell: Much of the country is socially conservative, as well as most Republican voters. The future of social conservatism is in doubt owing to a lack of Republican pushback. If social conservatism is thrown over the side, it’s hard for me to envision exactly what the Republican base would consist of.
Freeman: Another question about that conservative base, as amorphous as the notion seems at the moment. Circumstances, some of them horrific to imagine, could conspire to turn this into a national-security election. Could you see Trumpism, which has adopted a kind of proto-realism as its international posture, informing a new administration with neoconservative policy goals?
Bell: I think he will define himself against Hillary as less internationalist but more hawkish. His foreign policy, which has been well-described as “Jacksonian,” is likely to be highly event-driven. Under Obama, provoking the U.S. seemed to leave an adversary more safe rather than less. I doubt that will be the case in a Trump presidency.
Freeman: One last question. I note that you run for the Senate every 36 years. Should we be looking for you in the 2050 campaign?
Bell: Only if the Democratic nominee is an iconic former Rhodes Scholar.
Freeman: Thanks, Jeff.