As two generations of conservative activists mourned the death of Jeffrey Bell on Saturday, a common refrain among them was: “If only Jeff had made it to the Senate.”
Bell, who died at age 74, made three unsuccessful bids for the Senate from his native New Jersey, was a steady and influential presence in the post-war conservative movement.
A policy adviser to Republican presidential candidates from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump, Bell was a Columbia University graduate and U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War. He also worked in various conservative outlets such as the American Enterprise Institute and National Review magazine.
When “red meat” conservative issues surfaced in presidential campaigns, one frequently found the hand of Bell — including Nixon’s call in 1968 for a crackdown on crime in the District of Columbia and Ronald Reagan’s TV spots in 1980 in which he pledged to fight inflation by lowering taxes (and which columnists Evans and Novak dubbed “indispensable” to Reagan’s winning campaign).
“Jeff was a comrade-in-arms on the formative 1976 Reagan campaign,” said Gary Hoitsma, a Reagan Administration alumni and former communications director for Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. “I met him when came to help on the Texas primary campaign that culminated in such a stunning primary victory for Gov. Reagan against President Ford. This was just a few months after he gained notoriety as the author of a $90 billion budget cut plan that Reagan touted in a major speech in New Hampshire. While the plan and the speech stirred controversy, it put Jeff firmly in the 'Let Reagan be Reagan' camp of true-blue conservatives on Reagan team.”
Bell, however, never managed to win office himself. In three successive races for the Senate from New Jersey, he performed well but fell short in the end: 1978, when he unseated a sitting GOP senator in the primary but lost in the fall; 1982, when he narrowly lost nomination to GOP “establishment” favorite” Rep. Millicent Fenwick; and 2014, when he scored respectably against Democratic Sen. Cory Booker.
In losing these races, Bell nonetheless put major issues on the table for national politicians to watch, adopt and to motivate young conservatives into the political arena.
“In Jeff’s campaign against [liberal Republican Sen.] Clifford Case, nobody but the two of us believed he could beat a four-term incumbent in the primary,” Ron Pearson, his campaign manager, told Newsmax. “But he had a plan that caught on with voters in a big way — to cut their federal taxes across the board.”
In a year when Californians enacted the property tax ceiling known as Proposition 13 and the across-the-board tax cuts were offered by Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., and Sen. William V. Roth, R-Del., Senate hopeful Bell raised the banner of the “ax-the-tax” movement throughout the Garden State.
“Jeff hit Republican meetings in every county,” said campaign quarterback Pearson, “If three people were going to show up someplace, he’d come there to talk to them.”
The lanky, easy-going Bell made new friends and volunteer workers by putting the cause of tax cuts in plain language. He also championed social conservatism — the pro-life cause, the right to keep and bear arms, and restoring prayer in public school.
On June, the insurgent conservative and his legions of workers made headlines nationwide: Bell defeated Case, becoming one of a dozen Republicans anywhere since World War II to defeat a sitting senator for re-nomination.
As the Republican nominee, Bell faced an uphill battle against Democratic nominee and onetime New York Knicks basketball great Bill Bradley. The Republican hopeful never backed down from his conservative agenda and more than held his own in televised debates with former Rhodes Scholar Bradley. The Democrat won, with 56 percent of the vote.
Jeff Bell never made it to the Senate or any office. But like Barry Goldwater in his 1964 presidential election and William F. Buckley in his bid for mayor of New York a year later, Bell showed conservatism could “sell.”
His ability in 1978 to package the conservative theme of lower taxes with the social agenda of pro-life and pro-school prayer “tested the waters” for Reagan, who took essentially the same agenda two years later and made history.
“In the modern conservative movement, Jeff was one of the most thoughtful and erudite voices and certainly one of its most influential,” said Gary Hoitsma, “and he was also one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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