Jeff Bell, a conservative visionary, Vietnam Veteran and three-time U.S. Senate candidate, passed away suddenly on Saturday night from an apparent heart attack at the age of 74. Bell currently served as the policy director for American Principles Project and the American Principles Project Foundation, a conservative think tank he co-founded in 2009.
Bell is survived by his wife Rosalie and four children.
It was through our mutual work with APP that I had the opportunity to meet Jeff. We were both part of a bus tour traveling throughout Iowa to discuss education issues and the gold standard. He was outgoing, had an infectious smile, and a sharp wit.
He loved sharing stories about his work with Ronald Reagan, and those of us on the bus tour loved to listen. Since we were in Iowa, and I was an Iowan, he could not help but give me grief about my home state’s Republicans passing over Reagan in our Iowa Caucus in 1976 when we chose Gerald Ford, but again in 1980 when we picked George H.W. Bush over the Gipper.
Yes, we got that wrong.
I also appreciated Jeff’s encouragement of my writing at Caffeinated Thoughts, as well as, the education policy work I did with APP.
With his passing, we have lost a significant voice for conservatism. Not only was Jeff one of Reagan’s speechwriters, but he was one of the people that pushed the policy agenda for the Reagan Revolution.
After Reagan’s first failed attempt at the White House, Jeff decided to make his first run for U.S. Senate in New Jersey in 1978. He challenged the incumbent four-term, liberal U.S. Senator Clifford Case. He upset Case in the Republican primary.
Brent Johnson at NJ.com recounted the victory:
Bell told The Star-Ledger in 2014 that he initially ran for Senate to help further the brand.
“I was running to develop our issues,” he remembered.
Bell ended up beating Case, an entrenched member of the GOP old guard, by 1.4 percentage points.
“It stunned everybody,” Carl Golden, the former press secretary for Republican Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman, told the Ledger in 2014.
He, unfortunately, lost by 12 points to Bill Bradley, an NBA star who played for the New York Knicks, who served New Jersey as U.S. Senator for three terms.
In 1980, Jeff helped produce and co-wrote several commercials for the Reagan campaign that were credited with helping boost Reagan in the Republican primary campaign. “It is no exaggeration to say that those Curson-Bell spots…were indispensable to Reagan’s solution of his basic political and ideological problems – a solution necessary for him to win the presidency,” Rowland Evans and Robert Novak later wrote in The Reagan Revolution. (He co-wrote a TV spot for Reagan focused on the gold standard that he was fond of showing during the bus tour we were on.)
He tried to run again for U.S. Senate in 1982 but lost in the Republican primary.
Prior to co-founding APP, Jeff worked with a number of think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute, Harvard Institute of Politics, American Enterprise Institute, and Ethics and Public Policy Center. He also worked for a number of years as a political and public affairs consultant in Washington, DC.
In 1992, he wrote his first book Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality.
I personally was surprised (I shouldn’t have been) when Jeff decided to return to New Jersey to run for U.S. Senate one more time in 2014 challenging incumbent U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ). Another former colleague of mine at APP, Rich Danker, who left to serve as his campaign manager, recounted Bell’s decision to do that in the Weekly Standard:
His appreciation for populism is what emboldened him to pursue the unfinished business of supply-side economics: the gold standard. When Jeff couldn’t find a Jack Kemp protégé to champion this monetary reform in Congress, in 2014 he ran on it himself—for the very the same Senate seat nomination he had won the first time.
It was 36 years later and he was twice as old, but Jeff observed that New Jersey’s political dynamics were mostly the same. He knew the state inside out. As his campaign manager, I got to witness the reactivated candidate skills. Every speech, no matter the length, was delivered off the cuff. He gave a detailed, unfiltered opinion on everything he was asked about. He had a gift for distilling “the simplicity beyond the complexity,” a phrase Jeff used during the Reagan years. The gold standard, he would tell New Jersey voters, was just a fancy way of saying the people control the money supply.
While Jeff was well known for his advocacy for supply-side economics, he was devoted to the social conservative cause.
In 2012 he published his second book, The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism. Danker also pointed out that he was prescient about the impact of social conservatism would make on the 2016 election.
By the time I began working for Jeff in 2010 at the think tank he co-founded, he had spent the previous two decades concentrating on social conservatism, to which he devoted a pair of books. He was struck by its appeal not just in Republican primaries, but with general election voters who were economically populist, rather than conservative. In a 2012 interview with the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto, he identified states totaling 348 electoral votes where social conservatism held the advantage—almost all of which would go Republican in 2016.
Jeff was also able to hold his own on the life issue during a debate with Booker during his 2014 U.S. campaign. Live Action recounted:
Fortunately, there are still some Republicans who don’t scare easily—and actually have the competence to stand firm without shooting themselves in the foot. During last week’s New Jersey Senate debate (transcript only, no video currently available), Democrat incumbent Cory Booker asked Republican challenger Jeff Bell:
BOOKER: You’ve consistently shown that you want to deny women their freedoms and rights to make their own healthcare decisions, even in the most extreme cases, if somebody is raped or a victim of incest. I want to know and understand, why don’t you trust women in those extreme cases, where they are victims of such violence and raped, to make their own decisions? Why do you believe that men like you should tell women what they can do with their bodies?
Normally, bringing up abortion and rape in the same sentence is Republicans’ Kryptonite, striking them with a visceral need to change the subject as soon as possible. No doubt Booker expected to nab some easy points here, and maybe a bonus sound byte along the lines of “legitimate rape.”
What he got, however…
BELL: Certainly women have bodies and I respect that, they need to take care of them and have the right to preserve their bodies. But unborn babies have a body too, Senator. They have a full complement of DNA, the human genome, things that we’ve found out since 1973. Cory Booker was once a one-celled zygote. And normally, a one-celled zygote grows up to be a human being, maybe even a US Senator, which I give you credit for.
But I would have a hard time looking a woman in the face and saying, ‘even though you became pregnant through a rape you should carry your child to term because it has a body, it has its own life.’ But I would find it even harder to go to the most recent Miss Pennsylvania, who has worked for rape victims but who herself was the product of a rape, and tell her, ‘you don’t deserve to live.’ [Emphasis added.]
Ladies and gentlemen, the anti-Akin has arrived.
Jeff Bell was a good, decent man. He was gracious and civil to all, and he was the type of candidate and activist the conservative movement needs more of – a happy warrior.
He will be missed.