Every 36 years, it seems, Jeff Bell disturbs New Jersey’s political order. In 1978, as a 34-year-old apostle of supply-side economics and a harbinger of the Reagan Revolution, he stunned the keepers of the conventional wisdom by defeating a four-term senator, Clifford Case, in the Republican primary. Bell, a Columbia University graduate who fought in Vietnam, lost to Bill Bradley in the 1978 general election, but in 1982 he went to Washington to help implement President Reagan’s economic policies that produced five quarters of above 7 percent growth and six years averaging 4.6 percent.
Bell, now 70, is back. He won the Republican nomination to run against Sen. Cory Booker, 45, the Democratic former mayor of Newark who last October won a special election to serve the last year of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s term.
New Jersey last voted Republican for president in 1988; in 2012, Barack Obama carried it by 18 points; it has not elected a Republican senator since 1972. Booker, who has raised more than $16 million, is a prodigy at siphoning money from Wall Street. Bell is running this year’s most penurious Senate campaign, having raised and pretty much spent about $300,000. And this is an expensive state: To reach New Jersey voters, candidates for statewide offices must buy New York and Philadelphia radio and television time, which Bell cannot do.
Yet Booker’s lead is only in the low double digits — 13 points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. In eight Senate races (Delaware, Hawaii, New Mexico, Oregon, Illinois, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Virginia), Republicans are less competitive than Bell is. If Republican groups had given Bell the money they spent dragging Sen. Thad Cochran to re-nomination in Mississippi, Bell might be hot on Booker’s heels. He could still get there with a modest infusion of campaign contributions: Several polls have shown Booker’s support below 50 percent.
Because Bell speaks incessantly about the dangers of fiat money and the wisdom of the gold standard, some people dismiss him as a one-issue candidate whose issue is an anachronism. He calls this “chronological snobbery”: The gold standard is a bad idea because it is an old idea and because the economics profession opposes it. Besides, his supposed single issue (actually, he has many) is the declining value of money, which affects everything.
His audiences, he says, are not just disgusted by today’s feeble economy, they are puzzled by it. So he explains that Wall Street “has been having a party” paid for by near-zero interest rates, which have had their intended effect of driving liquidity into stocks in search of higher yields, a bonanza for the 10 percent of Americans who own 80 percent of the directly owned stocks. This “wealth effect” is supposed to prompt spending and investing that will trickle down to the 90 percent. Meanwhile, near-zero interest rates punish savers.
Bell wants to alert the nation before the government again has to pay 4 percent interest on its borrowing, thereby adding, he estimates, $400 billion to the deficit. He is running because “something substantive ought to be offered before the 2016 cycle.”
Booker, who is ignoring Bell, just as Case did, has a better résumé (Stanford, Oxford, Yale Law School) than reputation. His liberalism is as conventional as his eccentricity is disturbing. He is a fabulist (he has been called “the Garden State’s Mother Goose”) given to asserting as facts various self-aggrandizing figments of his imagination (e.g., T-Bone, a nonexistent Newark drug dealer, with whom Booker has had, he says, instructive interactions). Worst of all, Booker is perfectly suited to today’s Senate. Flitting like a waterbug on the surface of things, he seizes fleeting headlines as excuses for wielding the federal government in opportunistic grandstanding. His crusade du jour would increase taxes on professional sports leagues in order to spend $100 million on domestic violence prevention.
A senator is 1 percent of one-half of one of the three branches of America’s government, so senatorial elections rarely alter the nation’s trajectory. Here, however, is why this one matters:
Cory Bookers are many, predictable and fungible; Jeff Bells are few, idiosyncratic and invaluable because they look at familiar things in unfamiliar ways, and leaven politics with new agendas, such as restoring the Federal Reserve’s single mandate to preserve the currency as a store of value. New Jersey has not rejected an incumbent senator in a general election since 1942. Next month, it should begin doing so, at least every 72 years.