Jeff Bell Transcript
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m Bill Kristol. And I’m very happy to be joined today by my old friend, Jeffrey Bell, a recent candidate for the Senate in New Jersey. I’d like to be calling you Senator Bell here, but you fell a little short in a very good race, wildly outspent by the incumbent. You had a closer race than a lot of Republicans did, against incumbents in tough states. So congratulations on a good race.
BELL: Thank you.
KRISTOL: Why did you run? I mean, it wasn’t expected, I think, that you were going to be a Senate candidate here in the state that you had run first in 36 years before, right?
BELL: It was totally sudden. It was at the end of a process where I was trying to get other people whose candidacies would have made more sense than mine. And for one reason or another, nobody could get a way to make the race.
I wanted to run on monetary reform, on returning to the gold standard, which I had spent four years in Washington in complete frustration trying to get anybody to focus, not only on that but even on what the Fed was doing because the Fed has had a zero interest rate policy for the better part of six years. And the conservative movement, the Republican Party, Democrats, nobody was really talking about that or trying to have any kind of a debate on it.
The Republicans who said they didn’t like too much easy money, they would have Ben Bernanke in a subcommittee testifying and they would just be very nice to him. They never really questioned the logic of what he was doing and printing all this money and financing huge deficits that started under George W. Bush. So I couldn’t get anybody to take that issue up, so I realized that nobody was going to do it in this, in the 2014 cycle unless I did.
So I went to New Jersey, I rented a home in Leonia where I had previously lived over 30 years ago and declared my candidacy right away. And I hadn’t been able to do, needless to say, any kind of financial preparation or I hadn’t made any contacts in the state, I hadn’t been there for years. And so it was kind of like jumping off a cliff.
KRISTOL: It’s amazing, though. Well, but it turned out okay and just come back to the –
BELL: Well, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it. I’m sorry I lost but I really enjoyed every minute of the campaign. It was so much better to be directly dealing, trying to get votes than trying to get people who had been elected to do something or candidates even.
KRISTOL: And the monetary reform message and the gold standard message seemed to resonate, actually. Well, and the primary, right, so you had a four-way primary, as I recall, and none of you had that much money or were that well known, really. And you won it to the surprise of –
BELL: I won it, and I didn’t put anything else in my only letter that I sent to the primary voters or anything else in radio ads or in the robocalls that I did. Steve Forbes did a robocall because he agrees with me on the gold standard, just saying, “Jeff Bell is right, we have to fix our money before we can fix the rest of the economy.”
And so I ran on that. I didn’t have enough money to take a poll so on primary night, I had no idea whether this gold approach had worked. It’s the only thing I had enough money to put across as the substitute for Jeff Bell, the carpetbagger. So I know it worked because I really didn’t have any other content in the campaign.
KRISTOL: And why, so let’s talk about that a minute. So the gold standard argument was, I mean, there’s a kind of theoretical argument for it, obviously, but you made it more of a populist argument, I think, is that fair to say.
BELL: Yes, yeah, very much a pro-middle class argument. The argument I made about it was that the zero-interest-rate policy punished savers. You can’t get a CD or start a savings account and get any kind of return, even to preserve what little money you have, much less increase it.
On the other hand, small business relies on lines of credit from locally based banks to create the jobs. And small business as the job creator in the economy was kind of handcuffed, even a successful small business in the last few years has had a hard time getting lines of credit, which is what they use to expand and hire workers. So, to me, the monetary policy was at the root of why we’ve had a jobless recovery. And I tried to get that across with gold as the logical answer to a paper money system where the wheels have fallen off.
KRISTOL: And also though, I think, you argued a paper money system that was sort of a collusion of Wall Street and Washington, right? I mean, it was a populist campaign and somewhat unorthodox Republican campaign in that way.
BELL: It was, and it was disdained by virtually everybody in the Washington Republican establishment and by Wall Street because Senator Cory Booker, my opponent who was an elected incumbent of one year standing – he had won a special election a year earlier – was the biggest Wall Street fundraiser of any Senator, Republican or Democrat during the 2014 cycle. He even eclipsed Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in that regard.
And Wall Street, although they may have their qualms about the zero-interest-rate policy, people in the investment business are having a party because of all the money that’s been drawn into the stock market because there’s no alternative. And the Fed is printing money to sustain that. And so Wall Street didn’t want to hear about a candidate who wanted to bring the party to an end and try something else.
KRISTOL: So this was not your first race. You said you went back to where you had run before. So talk about that because, I think, you were a staffer before that and very involved in the conservative movement, obviously. But you hadn’t run for office.
I don’t know if you’d thought about running for office. And I remember being there in grad school and knowing you slightly. And suddenly in 1978, you’re running in a primary against an incumbent Republican Senator. So how did that, how did that happen?
BELL: Well, after the ’76 campaign, I was unemployable, really, I mean, I was blamed by many conservatives for Reagan’s defeat in the primaries to Gerald Ford and –
KRISTOL: Because of your –
BELL: Because of my $90 billion decentralization plan, which had gotten Reagan into trouble. And I was interested in running against a liberal Republican and seeing if I could by winning the nomination against an incumbent who was out of touch with his own party, primary voters – usually the man I ran against, Senator Clifford Case, a liberal Republican who had served 24 years, he had never lost an election going back to the 1930s. He never had a serious Democratic opponent. He had the support of the AFLCIO, the Americans for Democratic Action, all the prominent liberal groups of that era. And so the Democrats hadn’t bothered to try in the previous cycles. And so I thought, well, if I can sneak up on him and win the primary, then there’s a good chance I can win the general election. Unfortunately, that was the year Bill Bradley decided to run as a Democrat.
KRISTOL: Right. But we’ll get back to that. I want to get back to how you won the primary, though, which is pretty impressive and pretty important, I think, for the future of the Republican Party and for the conservative movement.
But did you personally, I’m just curious – we never really have talked about this – had you always had sort of the urge or the itch to run for elective office, or you had thought of yourself more as an operative and thinker and strategist and activist and not the actual candidate? Or was there a moment when you thought to yourself, gee, all these other guys are running and I’m working for them, maybe I should be the one who’ll run?
BELL: I had thought about it. I mean, I think to be honest, most people who wind up running for office have had it in their mind, in the back of their minds that this is something I really would like to do if it’s at all possible. Usually, people, young people who were thinking about running don’t like to talk about it because it could be very embarrassing if they’re telling their girlfriend they’re going to run for governor and it never happens or they do very badly. They don’t want it known that this is something they were always kind of thinking about.
So I was thinking about it but I was kind of propelled into that race by my own situation and the unemployability, the fact that I thought liberal Republicans were very vulnerable, it was partly seeing the opportunity of beating a liberal Republican in the primary, which was, I thought, doable without knowing at the time exactly how I was going to go about doing that.
KRISTOL: And it was – was there any one or two issues? I mean, you didn’t – you had disagreed with Clifford Case on a million issues, I guess. But was it more sort of helping to propel the conservative movement forward after Reagan or was there a particular – ?
BELL: Well, what I did was I had continuity with what Reagan had challenged for in ’76 in the sense that I was a hardliner on foreign policy and the issue that was still bubbling up at that time was the Panama Canal treaty, the giveaway of the Panama Canal. That, the vote was 68 to 32. They needed a two-thirds majority to give away the Canal, and Case was one of those 68. And so it was a natural vote to challenge him on.
But I would say more important was the element of supply side. And I had developed during the Reagan campaign a relationship with Jude Wanniski and Jack Kemp and Art Laffer. And I saw this idea bubbling around. It really hadn’t come out that much by the end of the ’76 race, but Jude Wanniski, who also happened to be from New Jersey, he was very interested in the fact that I wanted to include a big tax cut in the decentralization plan, a federal tax cut of 23 percent. And we connected with each other. I had already read an article by him. Yeah, it was in ’75.
KRISTOL: I didn’t realize that. That’s interesting. So Reagan was a tax cutter –
BELL: ’76, we met in ’75 or ’76.
KRISTOL: The Reagan decentralization plan –
BELL: Had a tax cut. But Reagan was not a supply sider, in the sense that he thought every dollar of a tax cut had to be quote paid for unquote.
KRISTOL: At this point in ’76.
BELL: So that’s one reason why I cut so much out of the federal budget in my proposal that Reagan adopted because I had to make room for a tax cut. I didn’t want it to be all castor oil.
KRISTOL: Right. Anyway, so you and Jude Wanniski and others sit around and you decide, I’ll challenge a sitting Republican Senator, a four-term Republican Senator. That’s pretty amazing. I don’t know, when’s the last time a Republican Senator even lost a primary, an incumbent Senator? I don’t think, I mean, leaving aside Case himself.
BELL: Actually, Thomas Kuchel in California had lost to Max Rafferty in ’68, 8 years earlier, 10 years earlier. The night, actually Rafferty defeated Kuchel, the night Robert Kennedy was shot and I was up late because I was a conservative working for Richard Nixon at the time, and so I was watching on television to see if Rafferty won. Kennedy had won early in the evening against Eugene McCarthy, his main opponent in California. And then Kennedy was shot. Rafferty won and Kennedy was shot.
So nobody in the Nixon campaign was in the headquarters so I was the one who called the people in the Nixon campaign to let them tell former Vice President Nixon that Kennedy had been shot. So my alma mater, Columbia, was going through huge riots that year. I mean, I felt like – and I had been in the Tet Offensive in Vietnam earlier that year. So, so many different things were happening in 1968, and I felt in some weird sense I was in the middle of all of them.
KRISTOL: Right. That is amazing. Anyway, so getting back to Jersey. So how do you, just so you decide, you’re thinking of running, you know Jude Wanniski, you’ve been around the conservative movement. But how do you actually do it? I mean, how do you actually just decide, I’m going to run for the Senate?
BELL: The key thing that made me viable was direct mail, direct-mail fundraising. I worked with a direct-mail fundraiser named Bruce Everly who’s still active in that field, a very good direct-mail fundraiser.
And I had a campaign theme that enabled me, our campaign to mail nationally to people who had never heard of me and really had never heard of Clifford Case. He wasn’t that well known, compared to Jacob Javits and Ed Brook and some of the other liberal Republicans of that era. And the first line of the direct mail piece we sent out to conservative lists was, “Would you believe there is a Republican Senator with a voting record more liberal than Ted Kennedy and George McGovern?” And the rest of that letter kind of wrote itself, and it brought in money from the beginning.
The fact that they had never heard of me or of Clifford Case didn’t really matter because direct mail had a kind of macro theme in those days. Richard Viguerie, who I later worked with in another campaign, he had pioneered the use of direct mail, which was the great populist conservative weapon of that period. And before I was even announcing as a Senate candidate, I had a – I was building up a direct mail list that brought in a stream of income during the whole race.
KRISTOL: So issues – that’s interesting. So all the talk about name ID and all that from political pros, the issue actually created, the issues or the issue mix created the name ID and not vice versa.
BELL: And that’s why Goldwater raised a lot of money in ’64, and Reagan raised a lot of money in ’76 against Ford, even though he didn’t have the corporate board room, he had the direct-mail conservative list behind him. And right after he won the North Carolina primary, he went in national television and gave a version of his foreign policy speech and so much money came into the campaign after that half-hour televised speech that the campaign didn’t know how to spend it all. And that’s how Reagan, who was broke at the time, got back into the race after winning North Carolina. Direct mail was just a magic weapon at that time for the conservative movement.
KRISTOL: And today, I guess, it’s more email and the Internet or I mean – think the populist opportunity is still there, though, to –
BELL: It’s there. I tried direct mail even after getting in so late. Usually, you need a lot of lead time to make a direct-mail campaign work. I wound up with over 50,000 names in my direct-mail file by the end of the ’78 campaign. But getting in at the last minute the way I did in 2014, there was just absolutely no chance that I could have raised money that way or gotten a head start.
KRISTOL: It is interesting how populist that early conservative movement was, though, as you say. And this was not, you were not a favorite of any, there were a few wealthy people, I guess, who were for you in ’78, a few wealthy conservatives?
BELL: Yeah, actually I had some significant Wall Street people who were in on the, early interest, influenced by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Jude Wanniski and Bob Bartley. And like I had – the head of Goldman Sachs, the co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, John Whitehead, gave a fundraiser for me.
Steve Forbes, who was new to the supply-side movement, gave a fundraiser for me after I won the primary in which C. Douglas Dillon showed up. C. Douglas Dillon was John F. Kennedy’s Republican Treasury Secretary, and he was, in effect, laying his hands on me because the campaign tax cut that I was running on was really modeled on the Kennedy tax cut of 1964. And so that was a big moment for me that Steve Forbes, out in a very wealthy area in western New Jersey, had Douglas Dillon showing up, Kennedy’s Treasury Secretary, who was kind of a revered figure among the early supply siders.
KRISTOL: So you ran in ’78. You beat Case. What was the margin?
BELL: Very close. Like one plus percentage points. It was a virtual dead heat.
KRISTOL: Wow. Must have been amazing. Do you remember the election night? That must have been –
BELL: Well, it had a high impact, not just because I had won this big upset that nobody was predicting, but also because, at the same time, California had a referendum called Proposition 13. And it was coming in. It was a huge property tax cut in California.
And I could give you the details of that but the bottom line was that California was overdue for a tax cut because money had been building up due to a real estate boom in California, and Proposition 13 put a cap on it. Very few people in the establishment, certainly not Governor Jerry Brown, supported that. But it was a very grassroots movement led by a man named Howard Jarvis, and it won by a 2 to 1 margin on the same night that I was running on a big federal tax cut. So you had like –
KRISTOL: I forgot that it was the same night. That’s amazing.
BELL: It was. And later in the general election, one of my tag lines in my commercials was California has Proposition 13, New Jersey has Jeff Bell.
KRISTOL: That’s good. And so that had an effect. You lost to Bill Bradley, though you ran a good race and lost by what 10 points or something, which was certainly respectable. Closest race Bradley ever had, I bet, in Jersey.
BELL: No, no, actually, he had another one, he had another one, it was his last one. Let’s not get into that. But I lost by 12 points to Bradley.
KRISTOL: And so but it really did, don’t you think, help with the notion that A, there’s a conservative insurgency in the Republican Party and, B, supply side tax cuts?
I think both of those, somehow, really were front and center because, I mean, once Reagan is a historical figure and won the presidency in ’80, many people forget – I do remember this being in grad school at the time – just it didn’t look as conservatism was in the ascendancy. Reagan had tried but had lost to Ford. And the Panama Canal treaty finally –
BELL: And many people thought he was too old. I wondered if he was too old myself.
KRISTOL: The Panama Canal treaty had passed. It wasn’t as if the people thought, oh, conservatism is the wave of the future. But I think you really helped change that dynamic as a young challenger to Case –
BELL: It did. And Jack Kemp came in for me and had a fundraising dinner, headlined a fundraising dinner in May of ’78 before the June primary. And that was a big turning point in the campaign.
KRISTOL: Kemp came in against a sitting Republican.
BELL: Yes, he did. Reagan, Reagan himself – Reagan didn’t support me in the primary, and I had a kind of an ice age with Reagan. I didn’t even have him in in the general election, I had Gerald Ford, former President Ford instead. I think that was – you know, I had all sorts of rationalizations for it but the truth is I was mad at Reagan for not helping me, and I was interested in supporting Kemp for President in 1980, not Reagan because although Reagan had endorsed the tax cut, it wasn’t clear at the time whether he would run on it as a centerpiece in his campaign, and we knew if Jack Kemp ever ran, he would run it with it as a centerpiece.
KRISTOL: Go back to Kemp coming in for you. I guess, I had forgot about that. I mean, I guess, Kemp was a risk-taker in that respect. I mean, he was such a nice guy, I would have thought – he wasn’t in the same body as Case, he was a Congressman and Case was a Senator. But that’s pretty gutsy to come in against a sitting Senator in a neighboring state. I mean –
BELL: Jack did a lot of things that were courageous. He probably would have done some things that were more reckless, if he’d always listened to Jude Wanniski. When Jude Wanniski was in my campaign, he was helping me put together propaganda. He was right there in Morristown, New Jersey and I would meet with him at certain times in the campaign, two or three times a week. And Jude lost his job on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal because he was caught handing out Bell brochures at the Hoboken train station by the president of Dow Jones. And he was given an ultimatum, either quit or quit politics. And he decided his book was coming out later that year, and he decided to quit the Journal after getting caught handling out the brochures.
But Jack Kemp deserves enormous credit for pushing along the supply-side revolution. And I think Jude’s and my flirtation with trying to get Kemp to run actually helped the internal forces within the Reagan campaign, to cement the Kemp-Roth tax cut as the centerpiece of his campaign, and eventually a kind of treaty, a détente was worked out between Kemp and Reagan. Reagan gave Kemp a big role in the campaign heading into the 1980 election. And Reagan did run with it as the centerpiece, which I think were always his instincts but, you know, his campaign team had to be behind that to make it work and they definitely were after Kemp and Reagan got together.
KRISTOL: I mean, Reagan is so – again looking backwards, of course – he was President and it was inevitable, but I remember, vaguely, my father at the time being inclined to think that maybe Reagan was a little old and sort of had lost in ’76 and kind of couldn’t go back to that. Well, he respected Reagan, didn’t know him I don’t think much at all. And Kemp who we knew quite well, I think he had the sense too that this is the moment for Jack, you know, he’s a little young and they’re going to say he’s untested but, I guess, he would have been in the House for what a decade by the 1980s. So that’s plenty of time.
BELL: That’s right, 10 years.
KRISTOL: And it would have been – I mean, but, I guess, if Reagan had not signed onto the Kemp supply-side, tax-cutting agenda, Kemp would have run, I think.
BELL: I’m not sure. I’m not sure if he would have. A lot of it was bluff. He was a little bit afraid of getting in against Reagan. He had actually worked for Reagan.
KRISTOL: Worked for Reagan, right.
BELL: Back in the 60s when Reagan was first Governor. And he was somewhat in awe of Reagan. I don’t actually know whether he would have gone through with it. Wanniski and I certainly had every desire to have him do it but I can’t say that we had Jack completely over the line, but I think just the threat of doing it had an impact on the internal situation and helped the people within Reagan’s camp, led by John Sears who wanted to do this. He wanted Reagan to have a much more forward-looking program than a typical conservative would run with normally.
KRISTOL: Talk about sort of the politics, almost the political psychology of the supply-side tax cuts. And leave aside the economic theory for a minute. I mean, it was, do you think, I mean, I think it was, it was crucial to just changing the whole character of the party and to some degree of the conservative movement even in the late 70s?
BELL: I think it was, and I think Reagan who was always engaged with the conservative movement, he read Human Events cover to cover, read National Review, read a lot of the conservative classics of the 50s, 60s, 70s. Reagan was constantly engaged with the conservative movement as a movement.
And of course, I would also argue that he changed it for the better. He updated it in certain ways, he made it more populist, more pro- the Founding of America, more grassroots in nature. And more pro-democracy in foreign policy. And he transformed it at the same time that he was engaged with it. And I think almost all of the decisions in which he changed the conservative movement were correct. I think he made it stronger, better, having a wider appeal. Supply side was definitely, probably, the single most important one of those changes.
KRISTOL: And why he – I mean, you knew him pretty well, I mean, he was a hard person to know, I guess, but why? I mean, how did Reagan have the instinct that the movement had to be more populist? I think the American part is very important. Some of the early conservative movement, my sense as a kid reading the magazines and all, it was sort of – and I like it intellectually – but it was sort of a European or English, British, you know, sort of nostalgia.
BELL: If you read Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, you would never have the idea that the American Founding was a very important component of conservative thought. And I think it was. I think that it was both revolutionary, and revolutionary in a conservative way, and that Reagan sensed that. And what he said – I know there was, Yuval Levin recently wrote a book with the tension between Paine and –
KRISTOL: Edmund Burke.
BELL: Burke. But Reagan had a lot of Paine in him. He loved that quote. He loved that quote of “You make the world over again.” And Reagan was very American in that way. He was not a skeptic about the possibilities for human advancement.
KRISTOL: And so that you got supply-side economics, which was populist-oriented and future-oriented and opportunity-oriented, you think fit well with his sort of disposition.
BELL: Yes, absolutely. He was optimistic. He was always optimistic and he was all about the future, that America hadn’t seen its best days and it hit a chord, hit a tremendous chord. And a lot of people assume that Reagan’s belief about how the tax cut would change America was exaggerated; they thought it was going to be a much more prolonged process to turn the economy around.
But, of course, once the Federal Reserve released their hold on the high interest rate policy and it turned around almost immediately, it was just a tremendous recovery that turned into an expansion, a very strong dollar. I mean, everything kind of kicked into gear all at once. So Reagan’s optimism about the willingness of the American people to perform economically was, I think, vindicated to a great degree.
KRISTOL: And in foreign policy, what seemed like a totally utopian hope that the Soviet Union could not just be checked or slightly even rolled back but overcome, transcended, made to go away, that was an amazing – I mean, it is an amazing story, which I think historians don’t really do justice to that, the U-turn, so to speak, or the pivot or the inflection point of America between about ’79 and ’89. And he deserves a lot of the credit.
BELL: He does. And a lot of what went into that, I think, happened in the ’76 campaign. There was a big battle at the Republican National Convention when Ford was on the verge of defeating Reagan, narrowly, at the Convention over a plank that was introduced by Senator Jesse Helms called “Morality and Foreign Policy.” And it had a lot of momentum. And Jim Baker, who was the Ford campaign manager in ’76, realized that if he took the advice of Henry Kissinger who was Secretary of State and National Security Advisor at the time for Gerald Ford, and fought that amendment to the platform tooth-and-nail that Reagan could take the Convention because what Ford and Kissinger were committed to was increasingly unpopular. It was felt that the realpolitik, the “let’s retreat here but maybe hold out there,” that type of thing that characterized Kissinger’s view of the world, it just wasn’t viable.
Reagan had won most of the primaries running against that, and so Baker delivered the Ford delegates for a title “Morality and Foreign Policy.” Henry Kissinger, I was told at the time and later, went absolutely nuts, sitting in the White House or Foggy Bottom or wherever he spent most of his time. He just said, “You can’t do this.” Morality – I’m not trying to quote him because he didn’t say anything publicly that I’m aware of – you can’t put morality into foreign policy, it’s a misunderstanding. This will send a terrible signal to the world. And Baker said, “Mr. Secretary, we don’t have any choice. We’ve got to support this amendment or the President is going down.”
KRISTOL: And Reagan really had internalized that and believed that to be the case.
BELL: I think so. I think so. He felt that America had become the greatest power in the world because it brought a moral element into foreign policy, not for any other reason. And I think that he really believed that, and he changed the whole orientation of foreign policy once he became President.
Jimmy Carter, actually, I would give a little bit of credit to because he brought up the human rights element of having a foreign policy, and Reagan built on that with Elliot Abrams as the Assistant Secretary for Human Rights. And I think that was a component. And that was also at the time considered a very explicit break with Nixon and Kissinger’s foreign policy.
KRISTOL: Yeah, I mean, I remember even as a younger person just watching. It was demoralizing. The Nixon-Kissinger policies, you know, whatever their merits in particular tactical ways, in particular parts of the world. If you were a strong anti-communist, it was demoralizing watching them refuse to go to China and refuse to be critical of this horrible tyrant who had killed 50 million people or whatever Mao killed. And then, of course, it was Solzhenitsyn in ’74, ’75, whenever that was.
BELL: When Ford refused to meet with him after he was exiled from the Soviet Union and –
KRISTOL: I think one reason I was with Scoop Jackson in ’72 in the Democratic primaries more because, as much because of disgust at Nixon and Kissinger’s détente than any intra-Democratic party reasons, which I had really no view on and didn’t care much about the Democratic Party, I think, so –
BELL: You know, there’s another thing that happened under Kissinger, which is something called the Sonnenfeldt Doctrine. Kissinger didn’t want complete blame for it. It was all his idea but in exchange for a kind of condominium with the Soviet Union, we would recognize that the Soviets had permanent control of Eastern Europe.
KRISTOL: Yeah, it’s amazing to think about.
BELL: And Gerald Ford got into probably his biggest mistake in the general election in ’76 when he said that well, Poland is really a free country, which sounded like a really stupid thing to say but it was really consistent with a kind of Kissingerian view of, well, Poland can have its fulfillment under a Soviet leadership, quote/unquote.
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