In August, Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint was traveling through GOP-friendly districts, urging Congress to defund Obamacare. In April, DeMint’s counterpart at a rival conservative think tank was visiting the Dalai Lama.
“I went to set up the collaboration in his monastery in Dharamsala, India,” Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, said in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call. “I meditated for half a day in his monastery and met with him in the afternoon.”
In his downtown Washington, D.C., office, wearing a black blazer with a checkered pocket square, slim-fit jeans and argyle socks, Brooks paused and smiled, as if relishing the audacity of it all: a conservative figurehead traversing a continent to convince the Buddhist spiritual leader to participate in an upcoming AEI campaign about “human flourishing and happiness.”
“This is the new right,” he said. “This is the new right.”
In his former life, Brooks was an academic, writing books and teaching courses on the virtues of the free-enterprise system, for which he calls himself a “warrior"; before that, he was a professional French horn player with a renowned orchestra in Barcelona.
Since Jan. 1, 2009, Brooks has helmed the AEI, a prestigious powerhouse of conservative intellectualism, where he wants to lead a revolution to transform the Republican Party of the 21st century.
His school of thought is this: Republicans are constantly hammered by the left for being the party of haters, especially haters of the poor.
Brooks argues any conservative who subscribes to the philosophy of the free-enterprise system subscribes to the system inherently designed to do the most good for the most people. But that message isn’t resonating with voters, and Brooks said it’s because conservatives aren’t talking about it the right way.
“If there’s any distinction between the approach that I’m taking and what anybody else around town at any time has been taking, it’s the emphasis on the ‘why’ of our movement,” Brooks said, “and trying to look at the deep moral truths that enable our free-enterprise system to bestow its blessings on you and me and everybody else, especially those who aren’t as lucky as you and me.”
Take, for instance, how Brooks recently spun the debate over entitlement programs.
“The reason we have to reform entitlement is we are going to become insolvent, and if we’re insolvent we have austerity, and if we have austerity, it hurts the poor the most and imperils the safety net,” he said. “The social safety net is one of the greatest achievements in our society and we have to fight for it.”
Here’s his conservative clincher: “And that means not extending it to 70 percent of the population.”
And, for the Democrats who paint Republicans as caring only for those with money, Brooks has a talking point for that, too.
“People who are stronger than we are, people who are really rich ... they don’t need my protections,” he said. “The people who need me and our movement are the people who are stuck in failing schools ... [or] unable to find jobs. These people are stuck in cycles of dependence, marginalized on the basis of growing statism and the free-enterprise system has not been extended to them aggressively enough.”
Brooks called free enterprise “an act of global brotherhood.”
Of course, convincing conservatives that they need to message differently is an exercise in undoing decades of learned behavior, and Brooks, who is actually registered as a political independent, said it requires patience. Brooks said he has a 10-year goal of making free enterprise a "settled issue" in America, "like civil rights are today."
Brooks and his AEI colleagues make frequent trips to Capitol Hill for meetings, presentations and congressional hearings. He said he has forged relationships with influential House GOP lawmakers who “get” his message. Brooks referred to many of them by their first names: Eric, as in Majority Leader Cantor, for example, or Paul, as in Budget Chairman Ryan.
That familiarity might not extend itself in the reverse, however — at least not yet. In conversations with CQ Roll Call, many prominent House Republicans and their aides said the name “Arthur Brooks” was familiar but didn’t evoke any strong feelings other than that he and the AEI continued to do good work.
But if Brooks has some work to do in making his name a household one, the time might be right.
There’s a new interest in expanding the GOP base, which necessitates building a reputation of a more inclusive Republican Party. Brooks is all about that, and he’s caught the eye of Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, who is also looking to change the party from within.
“His perspective is from a real, scientific research-based perspective of how people listen to an emotional message before they can grasp the facts of the situation and how [Republicans] really should be doing a better job that way,” said Ellmers, the chairwoman of the Republican Women’s Policy Committee.
As part of her effort to make the GOP more palatable to women in an election year, Ellmers arranged for the AEI to be a partner of the RWPC beginning in early 2014. The think tank will meet regularly with the committee, offering targeted policy analyses, messaging strategies and polling data.
Brooks also could have an “in” with influential congressional Republicans whose relationship with the Heritage Foundation has soured, due in part to the aggressive tactics of its advocacy arm, Heritage Action for America.
DeMint, in an interview with CQ Roll Call, downplayed the House GOP’s frustration with his organization, as well as the differences between how he runs his shop and how Brooks runs his.
He called Brooks a “leader” in the conservative movement, though, with a gift for driving the message home: “I came out of the marketing and advertising business, and I’ve been frustrated for a long time that the ideas that I know work and are better for people are not being communicated.”
Brooks conceded that Heritage is “creating conflict” on the Hill, but he stressed that he was a yearly donor and a great admirer of the think tank’s work.
“Here’s the thing we should be really super happy about,” he said. “People are happy or unhappy with what Heritage is doing, or what AEI is doing ... but you know what? I guarantee you there will not be a knock in the night and a jackbooted thug at my door. And I run what is arguably the most important conservative institution outside of government in America today.
“That is a miracle,” Brooks continued. “That is something that I’m so grateful for every day.”