Who is Jeff Bell?
Mr. Bell, 68, is an unlikely tribune for social conservatism. His main interest has always been economics. He was “an early supply-sider” who worked on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns of 1976 and 1980 and Jack Kemp’s in 1988. In 1978 he ran an anti-tax campaign for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey, defeating Republican incumbent Clifford Case in the primary but losing to Democrat Bill Bradley.
Even now his day job is to advocate for the gold standard at the American Principles Project. But he’s been interested in social issues since the 1980s, when “it became increasingly clear to me . . . that social issues were beginning to be very important in comparison to economic issues,” in part because “Reaganomics worked so well that the Democrats . . . kind of retired the economic issues.”
Social conservatism, Mr. Bell argues in his forthcoming book, “The Case for Polarized Politics,” has a winning track record for the GOP. “Social issues were nonexistent in the period 1932 to 1964,” he observes. “The Republican Party won two presidential elections out of nine, and they had the Congress for all of four years in that entire period. . . . When social issues came into the mix—I would date it from the 1968 election . . . the Republican Party won seven out of 11 presidential elections.”
The Democrats who won, including even Barack Obama in 2008, did not play up social liberalism in their campaigns. In 1992 Bill Clinton was a death-penalty advocate who promised to “end welfare as we know it” and make abortion “safe, legal and rare.” Social issues have come to the fore on the GOP side in two of the past six presidential elections—in 1988 (prison furloughs, the Pledge of Allegiance, the ACLU) and 2004 (same-sex marriage). “Those are the only two elections since Reagan where the Republican Party has won a popular majority,” Mr. Bell says. “It isn’t coincidental.”
Even without immediate gains among minority voters, Mr. Bell sees social issues as the path to a GOP majority in 2012. They account for the George W. Bush-era red-blue divide, which Mr. Bell says endures—and, he adds, red has the advantage: “There was one state in 2000 that Bush carried that I would say was socially left of center, and that was New Hampshire,” the only state that flipped to John Kerry four years later. “By 2004, every state—all 31 states that Bush carried—were socially conservative states.” Those states now have 292 electoral votes, with 270 sufficient for a majority.
By contrast, not all the Kerry states are socially liberal. “The swing vote in the Midwest is socially conservative and less conservative economically,” Mr. Bell says, so that “social conservatism is more likely to be helpful than economic conservatism.”
The roots of social conservatism, he maintains, lie in the American Revolution. “Nature’s God is the only authority cited in the Declaration of Independence. . . . The usual [assumption] is, the U.S. has social conservatism because it’s more religious. . . . My feeling is that the very founding of the country is the natural law, which is God-given, but it isn’t particular to any one religion. . . . If you believe that rights are unalienable and that they come from God, the odds are that you’re a social conservative.”
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