Jeff Bell, who is running against incumbent Democrat Sen. Cory Booker, is making criticism of the Fed and a return to the gold standard the centerpiece of his campaign.
It's a line of argument associated more with libertarians such as former Rep. Ron Paul than Senate candidates in a state with close ties to Wall Street. But Bell said it was necessary in part because his campaign faces such an uphill battle.
A 70-year-old former aide to Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and Rep. Jack Kemp, Bell has lived outside New Jersey for three decades. He faces Booker, the popular former mayor of Newark who is fresh off a 2013 special election win, in a blue state where it's expensive to advertise.
With little campaign cash, Bell said that he knows he has only the "bandwidth" to communicate one plank of his platform.
“I just gambled on the idea that saying that I’m the candidate who wants to level the playing field on money would be enough to get me through the primary, and it was,” he told the Washington Examiner.
He spent his funds on anti-Fed robocalls, including some recorded by the publishing executive and supply-side Republican Steve Forbes. His subsequent primary victory strengthened his belief that voters are ready for a campaign centered on the unlikely topic of monetary policy.
Bell's message runs counter to decades of mainstream economic thought, which holds that pegging the value of the dollar to a weight of gold limits central bankers' ability to respond to recessions.
University of Chicago professor Anil Kashyap told the Examiner that Bell’s proposal to peg the dollar to gold is “one of the worst possible economic policies that a candidate could support.” Kashyap added that “no reputable economists embrace this idea,” citing a poll of top economists conducted by the University of Chicago in 2012 that showed no support for a gold standard.
But Bell argues that his message is clear and resonates with voters.
“I have every feeling from the speeches I've given and the reactions of audiences that it is something you can communicate to average voters,” he says.
A spokeswoman for Booker's campaign responded that the senator "opposes a return to the gold standard" and that Bell’s “obsession with long-discredited economic theories is not the right path forward and is out of touch with the needs of New Jersey's and our nation's middle class.”
Bell knows his proposal is at odds with the mainstream, although he claims a “small minority” of economic historians favor a gold standard.
He also says he's willing to defy the majority of economists because of his experience advocating supply-side tax cuts in the late 1970s. Many economists questioned the idea of using tax cuts to spur economic growth as "trickle-down economics," but Bell argued that they worked under President Reagan.
"Every so often economics and other professions need a wake-up call from people on the outside," Bell argues.
At the same time that Bell is running against the Fed, an organization he was previously associated with, the Washington-based conservative group American Principles in Action, is also working to inject criticism of the Fed into mainstream politics.
The organization's monetary policy director Steve Lonegan, a former New Jersey mayor who himself has run against and lost to Booker, announced last week that he’s launching a campaign focused in primary states to “force the presidential candidate in both parties ... to bring monetary policy to the forefront” in 2016.
“There’s gonna be a money revolution” similar in spirit to the Tea Party movement, Lonegan predicts.
Bell worked for the group’s think tank arm, the American Principles Project, before entering the New Jersey race. Lonegan says there’s a firewall between his organization and the Bell campaign, but praises Bell for criticizing the Fed, and also commends Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian Republican from Kentucky and son of Ron Paul, for having spoken out against the Fed in the past.
Lonegan says he is not campaigning to "end the Fed," as Ron Paul did in 2012, but rather to "mend the Fed."
Monetary policy is rarely a campaign-trail issue, although there are notable exceptions. In 2011, Texas governor and GOP hopeful Rick Perry criticized then-Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, saying that Bernanke's attempts to stimulate the economy during an election year were "almost treasonous."
John Makin, a macroeconomist at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said that a campaign against Fed policy is “not something that the Fed’s gonna lie awake worrying about.”
“It’s a curious phenomenon,” Makin said of the anti-Fed line of attack, adding that “it’ll be interesting to see if it’s resonant.”