Jeff Bell’s Most Effective Issue: Opposition to Common Core

To me, Jeff Bell will always be a young man of 34 years, as he was when he scored his historic upset victory in the June, 1978 Republican primary election over the then incumbent U.S. Senator Clifford Case. Jeff made history in that primary by scoring the first significant electoral victory for the tax cut ideology that propelled Ronald Reagan to the White House two years later in 1980.

Now, thirty six years later in 2014, Jeff Bell can make history again by making opposition to Common Core education standards the central issue of his campaign. Jeff frames the issue very well on his website as follows:

“There should be no further movement to impose national standards, which includes the bogus Common Core curriculum that waters down math and literature. The road back to quality education is experimentation and competition among the states and among the school districts within each state.”

Opposition to Common Core has gained potency as an issue throughout the nation. It appears that it will become a litmus test issue for 2016 GOP presidential aspirants. Leading conservative journalists George Will and Peggy Noonan have written columns denouncing Common Core. Will has excoriated the program, largely consisting of
standardized tests, as “the thin edge of an enormous wedge ….designed to advance in primary and secondary education the general progressive agenda of centralization and uniformity.” Noonan lambastes the test questions, stating that the ones that have come out are “nonsensical and impenetrable, promise to get worse, and for these reasons are demoralizing.”


Now the forces and intelligentsia of the Republican conservative grassroots have been joined in the anti-Common Core coalition by a key constituency of the Democratic Party, namely the national teachers unions, including the two leading unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). The leaders of these two unions claim not to oppose Common Core per se but rather the implementation of Common Core in the form of the standardized tests, which they assert constitute an unfair methodology of measuring teacher effectiveness. This is a distinction without a difference – the tests are the heart of Common Core.

The opposition to Common Core is actually part of a larger issue, namely, the desire of parents to have a greater voice in the education of their children. The desire of parents to play a greater role in the context of state school takeover was a key factor in the recent election of Ras Baraka as mayor of Newark.

Thus, opposition to Common Core is a theme that has enormous political potential for Jeff Bell. At the same time he denounces Common Core, he can attack Cory Booker as an ally of corporate “education elitists.” Bell may find that his opposition to Common Core wins him support even from rank-and-file teachers and among African-Americans.

Yet it appears that Jeff Bell may continue to make the abstruse issue of the gold standard his central issue rather than opposition to Common Core. If he adheres to this course, he will be making a very serious political mistake.

I actually in large part agree with Jeff Bell on the gold standard, or at least, on a Federal Reserve policy of monetary growth geared to commodity prices. The problem is the esoteric nature of monetary policy as a campaign issue. It is a very important topic, yet one that few voters understand or even wish to understand. If Jeff Bell speaks passionately about the potential damage of Common Core on the education of New Jersey’s children, he can touch the hearts and souls of voters. If he instead focuses on the gold standard, he will sound like the late coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Tom Landry, whom Howard Cosell once described as “a national cure for insomnia.”

Before Jeff Bell makes a decision as to whether to opt for the gold standard or opposition to Common Core as his central campaign issue, he should review his own book, Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality, published in 1992. This is a most incisive book as to why populist values issues often trump economic issues in campaigns.

I have a very extensive home library consisting of works of history, political science, and economics. Each book is placed according to topic. I have Bell’s Populism and
placed next to Ben Wattenberg’s 1995 book, Values Matter Most.

In Populism and Elitism, Bell defines populism as “optimism about people’s ability to make decisions about their lives”, and conversely, elitism as “optimism about the decision-making ability of one or more elites, acting on behalf of other people.” In Values Matter Most, Wattenberg, while not using the word “populism”, implicitly defined education as one of four populist issues.

Clearly, on the education issue, Jeff Bell has taken a populist position, giving parents and their local representatives a greater voice and power regarding the education of their children, free from the shackles of Common Core. Education is an issue where electorally speaking, Jeff Bell is on the winning, populist side and Cory Booker is on the losing, elitist side. During the recent Newark mayor race, it was widely noted how unpopular Booker had become in Newark. I believe that this is largely due to the perception in that city that Booker is an out-of-touch elitist, particularly on education issues.

Patrick Murray of Monmouth University is truly New Jersey’s pollster of record. His poll of the U.S. Senate race, released on July 2, had the race much closer than expected, with Booker garnering 43 %, Bell 23%, 17% undecided, and 15% saying that they would prefer another candidate.

Jeff Bell is a definite underdog in this election. Yet victory is not impossible. His opposition to Common Core does have the potential to win him the U.S. Senate seat he first sought in New Jersey 36 years ago. He was 34 then; he is 70 now. Yet in terms of freshness of ideas and sharpness of intellect, Jeff Bell remains, in the words of Bob Dylan, “forever young.”

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.

Jeff Bell’s Most Effective Issue: Opposition to Common Core