Jeffrey Bell, a conservative theorist who transformed his relentless campaign for tax cuts into a stunning primary upset that toppled a liberal fellow Republican, United States Senator Clifford P. Case of New Jersey, died on Feb. 10 in Annandale, Va. He was 74.
The cause was cardiac arrest, his wife, Rosalie O’Connell, said.
Mr. Bell lost two other Senate bids, but his electoral record belied an enduring national political influence on economic and social issues.
“He turbocharged the policy agenda that culminated with Reagan’s landslide election and a mandate for massive tax cuts,” Rich Danker wrote last week in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard.
Mr. Bell was only 34 in 1978 when he challenged Mr. Case, a last pillar of liberal Republicanism. Mr. Case had been undefeated since he was first elected to Congress in 1944, a year after Mr. Bell was born. Mr. Bell lost the 1978 general election to Bill Bradley, a Democrat.
“You learn a lot about somebody when he’s your opponent,” Mr. Bradley said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “Jeff was a man of ideas, he was a man of principle, and he never took a cheap shot. Later, when I became an advocate for tax reform — closing loopholes and lowering rates — Jeff became a real ally.”
Mr. Bell unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for the Senate again in 1982, losing to Representative Millicent Fenwick, who was defeated that November by Frank Lautenberg. But he staged a belated comeback in 2014, returning to New Jersey to capture his party’s nomination and face the incumbent Democrat, Cory Booker.
Mr. Booker won the general election easily, though, capturing 55 percent of the vote to Mr. Bell’s 43 percent — about the same margin by which Mr. Bradley defeated Mr. Bell 36 years earlier.
Robert W. Merry, the editor of The American Conservative, wrote on the magazine’s website that “it was Bell’s role in the emergence of ‘supply-side economics’ that cemented his stature in American politics.”
He ranked Mr. Bell with Representative Jack Kemp and with Jude Wanniski and Robert L. Bartley, both of The Wall Street Journal, as “the top four figures in that emergence.” Mr. Bell, Mr. Merry wrote, “became the first person to test the resonance of the concept on the hustings.”
Mr. Bell’s conservative credentials were impeccable. He had been the Capitol Hill director of the American Conservative Union, president of the Manhattan Institute, policy director of the American Principles Project and the author of two books, “Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality” (1992) and “The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism” (2012).
While he may have gobsmacked some audiences by espousing the gold standard as a cornerstone of monetary policy, Mr. Bell had a flair for, as he put it, expressing “the simplicity beyond the complexity.”
He favored less government regulation and a tighter money supply. Low interest rates, he said, discouraged individuals from saving and banks from loaning money to expand businesses. He also endorsed a conservative social agenda, which, he presciently insisted, would intensify the red in purple states in the Midwest.
In an editorial after his death, The Wall Street Journal lauded Mr. Bell for his “cheerful populism in the Reagan and Kemp mode.” Despite his electoral defeats, the editorial said, “his ideas over a lifetime were more influential in shaping American politics” than those of nearly all senators.
Jeffrey Langley Bell was born on Dec. 13, 1943, in Washington to John Bell, an executive with DuPont, the chemical company, and the former Marjorie Langley, who later managed a shelter for battered women.
He attended high school in Geneva, where his father had been assigned, and served in the Army in Vietnam. He graduated in 1965 from Columbia University, where he majored in English.
In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1983, he is survived by three sons, James, Nicholas and Damian; a daughter, Julia Slingsby; a sister, Michael Vargas; and four grandchildren.
While he campaigned for Richard M. Nixon’s re-election in 1971, Mr. Bell was among the “Manhattan Twelve,” a group of conservatives who, after meeting in the apartment of William F. Buckley Jr., suspended their support for the president because of his overtures to Communist China.
During the campaign for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Bell helped write a speech in which Ronald Reagan proposed “a program of creative federalism” to shift responsibility for $90 billion in federal programs to the states. Reagan lost ground in places like New Hampshire, which had no state income or sales taxes and would have had to raise revenue to pay for those programs. Gerald R. Ford, who had become president when Nixon resigned, won the nomination.
“After the ’76 campaign, I was unemployable,” Mr. Bell said in 2014 on the online forum Conversations With Bill Kristol. (Mr. Kristol is editor at large of The Weekly Standard.) “I was blamed by many conservatives for Reagan’s defeat in the primaries to Gerald Ford.”
After losing to Mr. Bradley, Mr. Bell produced television commercials for Reagan’s successful primary campaign in 1980.
Mr. Bell’s campaign platform foreshadowed the 1981 Kemp-Roth tax cut, named for its principal sponsors — Mr. Kemp, of New York, and Senator William V. Roth Jr., of Delaware, both Republicans — as well as the 1986 tax changes under Reagan, which Mr. Bell advocated and Mr. Bradley helped shepherd through Congress.
After serving as national campaign coordinator for Mr. Kemp’s presidential primary campaign in 1988, Mr. Bell was president of an economic and political consulting company in Arlington, Va., which became known as Lehrman Bell Mueller Cannon.
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