AEI President Arthur C. Brooks/file photo
Best known for housing foreign-policy hawks and the high priests of supply-side economics, the American Enterprise Institute has long been a regular, if low-key stop for Republican presidential candidates, be it for a hand with their white papers or huddles with resident scholars like John Bolton.
But for 2016, Arthur C. Brooks — AEI’s 51-year-old, French horn-playing president — is positioning the think tank on 17th Street to be a bigger player in the presidential campaign by putting itself in the middle of its biggest debates.
Instead of hosting scattered briefings on Iraq or tax policy — and leaving it at that — Brooks envisions AEI as an engine for refashioning conservatism for a weary electorate.
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Nowhere is Brooks’s approach more evident than on addressing the rising gap between the rich and the poor — and the failure of many Republicans to speak cogently about income inequality and the stagnation of the middle class.
If Brooks and AEI can help give Republicans a persuasive argument, then they might be able to take their case to Democrats and independent voters disenchanted with Hillary Rodham Clinton.
A number of former AEI scholars, such as economist Abby McCloskey, have been scooped up by candidates, with more formal hires in the works. McCloskey recently left AEI to join former Texas governor Rick Perry’s policy shop.
These days, Brooks said his first response when a GOP contender comes by his office isn’t to connect him or her with former officials from the Reagan or Bush administrations, but to challenge them to study up or schedule a meeting with Robert Doar, one of AEI’s fellows in poverty studies.
“Our new market is poverty,” Brooks said in an interview. “We need to craft a poverty-reduction program from the right, where we’ve been missing in action.”
“We just pound all day on that,” he said. “Pretty much all of the campaigns have been talking to AEI, which we’re really grateful for. And those conversations are very active. Everyone is trying to figure out how to talk about the idea of earned success in America.”
Brooks said the most called upon AEI scholars on poverty also include tax economist Kevin A. Hassett and a pair of labor scholars: Andrew G. Biggs and Michael R. Strain. Columnist and blogger James Pethokoukis is a frequent presence on cable news and plugged-in with GOP strategists.
Offering a menu of ways to navigate issues like the federal minimum wage has become a priority, especially for a party that has lost two straight presidential elections and developed a reputation as being aligned with the wealthy.
“There is widespread consensus that conservatives need to have an alternative to an increase and an explanation that goes beyond ‘it’s bad for business,’” Brooks said.
So far, Brooks has been pleased with the results. As he watches the early days of the Republican primary unfold, he sees candidates speaking out on poverty and showing compassion, a departure from previous cycles, particularly 2012, where he recalls many candidates forgetting “the conservative heart.”
“AEI is successful when our ideas get translated to what leaders are doing on the ground,” he said. “Success is not only expressed in op-ed articles, papers, or books. It’s about how effective we are in getting others to act.”
Another forum for Brooks to prod the candidates will come when AEI co-hosts a Republican presidential debate, a development that’s being finalized. “The RNC is still working it out, but [chairman] Reince Priebus and I have been in touch.”
For now, Brooks is taking the lead in being more active in the political mix. In early May, he even engaged with President Obama on poverty at a conference at Georgetown University. On a panel with more left-leaning voices, Brooks won praise for holding his own.
“I’m more outnumbered than my Thanksgiving table in Seattle, let me tell you,” he joked.