Opinion | White House

Biden should seek some ideological diversity

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As the Senate returns following the Thanksgiving holiday, in addition to resolving the debt ceiling standoff and passing the National Defense Authorization Act, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y) still aims to meet the Christmas deadline for passing the reconciliation bill. Despite reservations that have been consistently voiced by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D.Minn.) predicted on ABC's This Week this past Sunday that the bill would make it to the Senate floor on schedule. If that indeed takes place, the House and Senate agree on changes, and Build Back Better becomes law, I would like to offer a piece of unsolicited advice to the Biden administration, and the blueprint for my suggestion - with a twist - has precedent in events surrounding the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act becoming law on Nov. 15.

One day prior to that bill's signing, the White House announced that former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu would become a senior adviser to the president to help oversee the rollout of the new law. Landrieu joins Cedric Richmond, Anita Dunn, Neera Tanden, and others in closely providing counsel to the president. As such, one suspects that should the reconciliation bill make it to the president's desk, Biden will soon be tasked with naming a senior adviser, who - like Landrieu on hard infrastructure - will provide recommendations regarding the implementation of the social spending package.

Here's where my suggestion comes into play: Even if President Biden desires one senior adviser who closely shares the administration's views on both the aims and implementation of this social spending, he ought also to appoint a willing partial critic, who, for instance, might be skeptical about the goals of the legislation, particularly regarding the proper role of government when it comes to family life, education, and childrearing, someone who might understand why even some Democrats such as Sen. Manchin had been willing to say that when it came to broad social spending, he was "comfortable with zero."

Perhaps the most compelling historical precedent for such a potential appointment is President Richard Nixon's 1969 decision to appoint avowed Democrat, then-Harvard professor and future US Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to the role of assistant to the president for domestic policy. (Moynihan would later hold a number of roles in the Nixon administration, including counselor to the president and United States ambassador to India.) Although Moynihan faced criticism from fellow Democrats for joining the Nixon administration - much like, say, Oren Cass, Patrick Deneen, or Heather Mac Donald might face from right-of-center peers - he believed he served a valuable role in presenting alternative courses of action to President Nixon, ones he might not have otherwise heard from just Republican advisers.

Such an advisor might stress to President Biden an idea that, fittingly enough, Moynihan himself believed: that government can be helpful up to a point and though capable of redistributing funds, its efforts tend to be ineffective and downright counterproductive when it comes to more ambitious social engineering projects. Such an adviser might also - as I discussed in my last Hill op-ed - impress upon the president the drawbacks of creating an expectation that the state - rather than parents - ought to be the first line of defense when it comes to raising the next generation.

In a remarkably prescient March, 2021, Hill op-ed, former national security advisor H.R. McMaster and Zachary Shore argued that President Biden would benefit inordinately from an in-house "devil's advocate" when it came to considering potential foreign policy courses of action. Such a "devil's advocate," we see now in retrospect, might have prevented the events that led to the Fall of Kabul this past August, something that Marc Thiessen - writing at The Washington Post - argued was the direct result of the Biden White House having a "team of sycophants" rather than "a team of rivals." If this is true for foreign policy, the same should be said when it comes to domestic issues.

The Biden administration has been in certain quarters praised and in others criticized for the emphasis it has placed on considering the race and gender of executive branch appointees, particularly at the Cabinet level. Perhaps now is the occasion for the administration to bring in some much-needed ideological diversity. And should President Biden secure a considerable political victory on his domestic agenda, even though he resisted Republican input on the reconciliation bill prior to passage, perhaps he can accept some counsel on the back end. 

In suggesting this, I cannot help but think of the qualification George Will added when expressing his support for term limits by acknowledging that he was "recommending the inconceivable." Nevertheless, as my occasional writing partner, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, has long maintained: "It's so important to hire people different from you."

McCrory is right, and - in light of record levels of social spending and a partisan political climate in which initiatives too infrequently cross party lines - ideological diversity has never been more essential.

Erich J. Prince co-founded and runs Merion West (@merionwest), a Philadelphia-based group promoting civil discourse in the age of polarization; he also writes a weekly column at MediaVillage on how the news media covers politics. He previously served as a communications strategist for former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory.