WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA)  (T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images) House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)  (T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

In the 1980s, Heritage Foundation provided much of the policy oomph and intellectual framework for Republican governance. Now it is the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). We saw a vivid example of this at work this week.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia in February delivered a speech titled “Make life work,” arguing that Republicans needed to lay out a positive agenda that addresses the needs of ordinary Americans. He called for an “agenda based on a shared vision of creating the conditions for health, happiness and prosperity for more Americans and their families. And to restrain Washington from interfering in those pursuits.” One item he mentioned was increased funding for pediatric research. This week, the House passed the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, which, Cantor explained, provides “some money through the [National Institutes of Health] Common Fund for high-risk, high-reward research that has the potential to transform pediatric research for children suffering from many different diseases and disorders. For the first time, Congress will establish a Pediatric Research Initiative Fund that will serve as an accountability mechanism to help ensure that dollars are reaching their intended target.” It passed 295-103.

The impetus for Cantor’s agenda, which results in specific legislation, doesn’t come out of thin air any more than does Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) call for a range of proposals to address concerns of middle- and lower-class Americans. And that brings us back to AEI, which has been encouraging conservatives to think along these lines. As I have reported before, AEI chief Arthur Brooks and his think tankers have been providing ideas and proposals along these lines in an effort to provide vision and purpose to the conservative movement and to dispel the notion that it’s all about money and all about rich people. Roll Call recently caught up with him:

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. . . . 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.

Hillary Clinton might call it the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” but, in fact, it is an effective division of labor within the conservative movement. There are authors/think tankers spurring conservative thought and developing policy, and there are lawmakers who can spot good ideas when they see them. And, of course, the process goes both ways; legislative proposals generated on the Hill may get the attention and support of conservative experts.

If the GOP is going to shift gears toward a bigger vision that focuses on upward mobility, sustainability of entitlements, education reform and other measures aimed at ordinary Americans, it will be because people like Brooks, Cantor and Lee work on parallel tracks to shift the debate. So far, it’s working.