Arthur Brooks is a stranger to convention. A self-styled “liberal bohemian,” he had an early career as an itinerant professional French horn player. He later got a Ph.D and became a university professor.
He now heads the American Enterprise Institute, an influential research organization.
He has written a book called “The Conservative Heart,” an organ that he believes has been misplaced by many of those who share his political persuasion and that should be the foundation of a successful America.
Brooks celebrates and criticizes conservatism. He calls for a more people-centric, optimistic approach that combines the moral values of work, family and faith with the economic ones of free enterprise, entrepreneurialism and limited government.
This is familiar stuff, except Brooks emphasizes what conservatives could do to help the poor break from a dependence on government. He stresses work, personal responsibility and the need for “an adequate safety net” for the needy. The question, he said in an interview, isn’t “greater income equality, but greater opportunity equality.”
Liberals will take issue with many of his prescriptions and interpretations of history. But the man and his book are engaging, provocative and thoughtful.
His goal is to make conservatism full of “optimism and joy.”
He argues that the Democrats’ War on Poverty has failed, even though the poverty rate dropped sharply in the four years after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s legislation was first introduced in 1965.
Brooks says the rate was already declining thanks to improved economic conditions.
The economist, who advises Republicans on policy, praises the civil rights measures of the Johnson era and believes Medicare was a noble idea, though it was ill-conceived and threatens to bankrupt the U.S.
Brooks’s gold standard is Ronald Reagan, both for his policies and his optimism. The Bush presidencies hardly merit a mention in “The Conservative Heart,” and he’s dismissive of the notion of compassionate conservativism.
When it’s pointed out that the Bill Clinton years outperformed the Reagan era in term of economic growth and job creation, Brooks answers that economic conditions aren’t always constant. Moreover, he says Reagan laid the groundwork “for Bill Clinton’s success.”
Yet he admires Clinton’s embrace of aspiration and hope, even if he disagrees with some of the Democrat’s policies.
“I’ll take a left-wing optimist all day over a right-wing pessimist,” he says.
Brooks recently was part of a panel discussion on poverty at Georgetown University with President Barack Obama, whose intelligence he admires: “He cares about poverty a lot. I love that.”
Nonetheless, Brooks criticizes Obama’s programs as well as what he says is the president’s “tendency to personalize and attack ad hominem.”
Yet in the “Conservative Heart,” Brooks approvingly cites a friend, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has repeatedly attacked Democrats, liberals and even Republicans such as Bob Dole. Brooks says Gingrich “sometimes is a visionary,” but that he doesn’t like that trait.
This fervent champion of free markets is a devout Catholic. Pope Francis’ sharp criticisms of capitalism and the inequities it imposes on the poor “are difficult to hear,” though Brooks says, “I appreciate the spirit of his difficult social teachings, but I also recognize that his understanding of capitalism is deeply limited by the fact that he’s from Argentina, where capitalism has not been tried.”
This worldview is reaffirmed, Brooks says, by the Europeans in the pontiff’s entourage “who are deeply skeptical, some overtly hostile to capitalism.”
Brooks has struck up a friendship with the Dalai Lama, whom he has visited in India and hosted at AEI conferences.
He barely disguises his disdain for the immigrant bashing by Donald Trump, a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Brooks calls on conservatives to more actively distance themselves from Trump’s “vilification.”
But he’s sanguine about the Republican contest and hopes to help frame the agenda. He and some of his AEI colleagues will organize a forum in Cleveland next week, before the first presidential debate on Aug. 6.
He cheerfully predicts the election will generate “a right-wing rumble for poverty.”
Albert Hunt is a columnist for Bloomberg View.