WASHINGTON -- "'I write articles for The Huffington Post.' That's so boring!" Arthur Brooks exclaims.
Brooks, the head of the American Enterprise Institute, is trying to explain something to me. He doesn't actually write for HuffPost. He doesn't actually think my job is boring. I think.
"I mean, it's cool, I guess," he says, hedging.
The point he's really trying to make is that defining one's self by a job description saps life of meaning.
"I am the president of a major free enterprise think tank. No! That's not who I am. I'm a purpose-driven person," he says. And the purpose? "Fighting for people."
"My movement shouldn't be fighting against things. My movement should be fighting for people," he says. "The problem with the conservative movement is it became a product-driven movement."
Brooks, a 49-year-old father of three with a highly eclectic background as a professional French horn player-turned-behavioral economist-turned-conservative thought leader, had an hour earlier on Thursday hosted the Dalai Lama at the American Enterprise Institute. Until a few years ago, AEI was known primarily as an establishment Washington think tank, advocating mostly green-eyeshade economic proposals and hosting hawkish foreign policy thinkers who argued for the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007. On the right, it was positioned between the Cato Institute, a libertarian group, and the Heritage Foundation, which focused a bit more on conservative social and cultural issues.
Since Brooks arrived as president five years ago, however, AEI has "been changing," he said. Over the past year or so, it's become clear that both AEI and Heritage have moved to dramatically new places.
The Heritage Foundation, under the new leadership of former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), is taking on the Republican establishment from within, aided by its combative political arm, Heritage Action. It's the think tank of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's brand of politics, beloved by the hardcore grassroots and scorned by many in the political class, left and right.
AEI, meanwhile, is being transformed from a dusty warehouse for bean-counting economists and neocons to what Brooks calls an organization "in the human welfare business." He talks often with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the latter of whom he describes as "an authentically good and high-integrity guy." Brooks is deliberately carving out a path distinct from that of other conservative think tanks in the nation's capital.
"There are a lot of think tanks and organizations around town that, believe me, the Dalai Lama is not calling. Right? Because what are you going to talk about?" Brooks laughed. "Are you going to talk about, you know, lowering marginal tax rates? There's no point of interaction. No common language."
An aide to the Dalai Lama called AEI after reading one of Brooks' books, Brooks said, and then he and others traveled to the Tibetan leader's temple in exile, in Dharamsala, India, during the government shutdown last fall. Brooks meditated at the temple and met with the Dalai Lama, who agreed to visit the think tank during his annual visit to the U.S.
The Buddhist spiritual leader has referred to himself as a Marxist and as sympathetic to socialist economic policies. But during his panel discussion at AEI, he said the conversation had softened his opinion of the free market system.
"Now after to listen [sic] yesterday and today, I developed more respect about capitalism,” the Dalai Lama said with a laugh. "Otherwise, just my impression, capitalism only takes the money, then exploitation."
Next month, Brooks will host former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates at AEI for a conversation about alleviating poverty.
These kinds of events -- hosting big names usually associated with liberal causes -- are aimed in part at creating, as one panelist described it on Thursday, a "scrambling of the categories."
"We're trying to live according to purpose as opposed to according to products," Brooks told me. "And if you're trying to classify organizations with respect to product lines, we should be very confusing."
But he also believes that conservative economics is the best way to help the poor -- that's what a good deal of his academic research focused on. He thinks that conservatives need to engage with thinkers of different persuasions not only to gain credibility, but also to learn and improve their own ideas.
"The truth is that one of the reasons there is a lot of misery in the bereft competition of ideas today is because we don't want to talk to people who are different than we are," Brooks said. "Somebody who's dedicated to improving the lives of everyone, especially the lives of people who are weaker than we are, is welcome at AEI."
Brooks acknowledged that conservatism, as a political movement, has not put low-income people at the center of its efforts. "Has the movement ever been a fighting force for the poor? In modern times, no. But I think it actually can be," he said.
He is a registered independent. He said his goal is not to revive the GOP.
"I don't care about the Republican Party because here's what I really, really want. I mean, I care about the Republican Party -- I care about the Democratic Party -- because I care about America," he said. "To bring back the Republican Party? No, that's not the objective at all. I want, 15 years from now, to have the free enterprise movement be as apolitically accepted as the civil rights movement is today."
To do so, Brooks said, conservatism needs an attitude adjustment.
"To be a part of the conservative movement, you should be expected to love people," he said. "This is a movement that must answer anger with love."
He had been talking, a moment earlier, not about liberal anger but about conservative anger over the direction of the country. Brooks' rhetoric and talking points offer an implicit criticism of the tea party movement.
"This idea that we want to keep with the initial outburst that fueled the tea party revolution in 2010 is not constructive. Because you can't keep saying, 'We're the majority. We're the majority,'" Brooks said. "I know you're the majority. What are you going to do with it?"
Yet even though he has called "the habit of fighting against things" a "terrible habit," Brooks is careful not to overtly criticize groups like Heritage or politicians like Cruz. When asked if the Texas senator is a positive force in American politics, he offered a non-endorsement followed by a prediction.
"I don't know. That's a good question. ... I think he's new," Brooks said. "He's a really important voice in this philosophical debate on the right. I ultimately think Ted Cruz will be an extremely positive force in conservative politics."