There’s a simple, politically smart way that Joe Biden can keep his victory speech promise to “listen to each other again [and] stop treating our opponents as enemies.” He should place a handful of conservative and libertarian-leaning advisors in appointed roles that have “soft” influence rather than formal policy-making authority. Doing so would have far lower political costs than putting Republicans in charge of mammoth federal departments and agencies while providing real dividends for both national unity and the president’s agenda.
In recent years, many presidential efforts to “reach out” have involved appointing a few tokens who don’t share the president’s party affiliation in technocratic roles overseeing sizeable parts of the federal apparatus. Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush had kept one member of their predecessor’s cabinet and even Donald Trump promoted an Obama administration holdover—VA official David Shulkin—to serve as his first Secretary of Veterans Affairs. And, while some cabinet appointees not from the president’s party such as Obama’s first Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, a longtime Republican congressman and Kennedy-Johnson Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon, a veteran Eisenhower official, have served ably, not all have. Many recent other-party appointees in cabinet-level jobs had short, stormy tenures like those of Shulkin under Trump, Obama Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and first-ever Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger under Jimmy Carter who had been Defense Secretary and CIA Director under Republicans.
On the other hand, people of another party with “soft” power but small or no formal roles have a far better and more consistent record of accomplishment. War Democrat George Bancroft helped Abraham Lincoln with key speeches and appeals while Franklin Roosevelt relied on a Republican who challenged him for the presidency, Wendell Wilkie, to build the World War II alliance with the United Kingdom. As Ambassador to the United Nations, Democrat Jeane Kirkpatrick shaped Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy more than anyone else than while former Republican President Herbert Hoover took on a formal role advising Harry Truman on how to remake the federal bureaucracy following the end of World War II. Richard Nixon’s decision to solidify and expand many Great Society programs rather than eliminating them happened while Daniel Patrick Moynihan served as a top domestic policy aide. Finally, Bill Clinton’s return to the center and political success following a rough first two years in office can be credited in part to (mostly) Republican fixer Dick Morris.
Such advisors offer an obvious political advantage for a president relative to a showy cabinet appointee: They have little or no formal power—many never even had paid jobs–and they mostly do not face Senate confirmation. Thus, if it doesn’t work out, they’re lower profile and easier to dismiss. Obama faced embarrassment and delay when he offered the Commerce Department to his Republican colleague, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who accepted and then changed his mind before confirmation hearings saying he couldn’t abide Obama’s big-spending ways. Less high-profile advisors are freer to offer a genuine outside view than would the token secretary in the peer-pressure packed cabinet meeting.
It’s true that Biden’s left flank may feel that any jobs given to the other party represent unforgivable ingratitude. But unless Biden wants to capitulate to their demand for Democratic uniformity, he’s going to have to annoy them with some appointments. Informal advisors at a variety of levels could let Biden have his cake with his party’s left and eat it too.
For Biden, then, a handful of advisors who have voice and input rather than policy authority could build more bridges at a lower political cost than, say, appointing Republican Meg Whitman as Secretary of Commerce. The former eBay and HP CEO and California gubernatorial candidate who backed Biden doesn’t really have buy-in with the GOP leadership or the Republican base. She might do fine but she’s not bringing any juice with her party. In particular, Biden should install at least one right-leaning advisor he trusts in a West Wing office, pick a Republican such as never Trumper and long-time Republican political strategist Liz Mair as a deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison, and appoint five or so other people with right-of-center resumes to strategic outreach and advisory positions throughout the executive branch. A half dozen Republicans is not a big ask in a big government. Such men and women would, of course, have to behave like all other political appointees and refrain from public criticism of the administration while keeping confidences. Biden shouldn’t hire anyone who he thinks might be a spy. But his right-of-center appointees should also have the latitude to offer internal critiques of policies, even harsh ones, without fear for their jobs.
Just as importantly, these officials would also keep open lines of communication with right-of-center activist groups and factions. They might show their faces at the Wednesday center-right meeting Grover Norquist runs, the American Legislative Exchange Council, CPAC, and other right-of-center convenings. There, they would take fire for the president, listen to critiques, help him avoid landmines, and build right-of-center support for policies that have genuine cross-party appeal. This might prove to be a Kamikaze mission. But the president will get credit for bravery and real outreach as opposed to putting a Cabinet RINO on his trophy wall.
And, of course, Biden himself could reap tremendous political gains. Right-of-center advisors not tied down to the business of running agencies would provide an “early warning system” to alert him to the latest trends in the GOP and retain strong social networks. Such folk might also have better political instincts with regard to Congress than the country-club Republicans who might serve in the cabinet. Finally, bringing in a few advisors trusted in the conservative movement would show an open-mindedness that the media would love, and they might even have some good ideas à la Moynihan.
Biden need not betray any campaign promises or key Democratic party constituencies. A large Republican-leaning business constituency angered by Trump’s destructive trade wars will naturally like Biden’s international commerce policy more than Trump’s. While a narrow House majority and likely Republican Senate will put an ambitious Green New Deal out of reach for a Biden administration, large parts of the “eco-right” agenda of cutting destructive energy subsidies and deregulating energy markets to fight climate change might offer a promising way forward on the environment. Even the GOP’s smarter-than-Trump populists—people around Senators like Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio—could offer support for some social safety net expansions with left-of-center appeal.
Biden can do a lot to advance his agenda not by picking token Republicans to serve as window dressing in cabinet slots but should, instead, pepper his administration with a few Republican-leaning advisors who want to help him heal a riven nation.