WASHINGTON — Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, had the unorthodox idea to invite the Dalai Lama to exchange views on capitalism with a panel of scholars at the conservative think tank last week.
The Tibetan spiritual leader gently suggested that there might be "more sense of universal responsibility and commitment," even as he listened politely to the Americans' praise for the morality of the free market.
"Today, I developed more respect about capitalism," the great Buddhist monk said with a smile. "Otherwise, in my impression, capitalism only takes money, then exploitation."
Brooks was solicitous of his holy guest. "Free enterprise truly can be and should be a blessing in the life of all people, especially the poor," he assured the high priest, but "it will not be if it's not executed and practiced on the basis of brotherhood and compassion."
A conservative calling for compassionate capitalism! This was encouraging.
"This is scrambling all of the categories," exulted panelist Jonathan Haidt, a New York University business professor who specializes in morality. "It makes me so excited that we might finally break out of the rut we have been in for so many years in our arguments about the role of business and government."
Let's not get too carried away, professor.
It is indeed a good thing that some conservatives are beginning to accept that government is not the enemy. But even as Brooks and his ilk push in one direction, the conservative movement and the Republican Party continue to be pulled forcefully toward the opposite pole.
The very same week Brooks was contemplating brotherhood and compassion, Greg Abbott, the attorney general of Texas and favorite to be the next governor, was campaigning with Ted Nugent, the vulgar rocker who last month called the president of the United States a "communist-raised, communist-educated, communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel." Neither Abbott nor the current Texas governor, Rick Perry, would criticize Nugent's abhorrent speech. "That's just Ted," Perry said.
Yep, that's just Ted, referring to President Obama with the same language ("subhuman mongrels") the Nazis used to justify exterminating Jews.
As the Dalai Lama came to AEI, the world was learning of another Republican expression of brotherhood and compassion — this one in the form of bigoted emails sent and received by people working for Scott Walker, now the Wisconsin governor and a prospective presidential candidate. The emails, released as part of a lawsuit, include one joke sent by Walker's then-chief of staff in 2010 saying "I can handle being a black, disabled, one armed, drug-addicted Jewish homosexual on a pacemaker who is HIV positive, bald, orphaned, unemployed, lives in a slum and has a Mexican boyfriend, but please, Oh dear God, please don't tell me I'm a Democrat!"
A different email, forwarded to Walker's deputy chief of staff in 2010, joked that welfare recipients, like dogs, are "mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can't speak English and have no frigging clue who [their] Daddys (sic) are."
"That is hilarious. And so true," replied Walker's aide.
Which will prevail in the battle for the conservative soul: the conciliatory idealism of Brooks? Or the crude animosity of Nugent and Walker's aides? I'm rooting for Brooks, but I wouldn't bet money on him.
The youthful Brooks, once a professional musician, has taken the admirable approach of protecting AEI's integrity as a think tank at a time when its crosstown rival, the Heritage Foundation, has become just an arm of the tea party.
This month, he wrote a provocative piece for Commentary arguing that "conservative leaders owe it to their followers and the vulnerable to articulate a positive social-justice agenda for the right." He quoted Friedrich Hayek, patron saint of the free market, as saying "some minimum of food, shelter and clothing" should "be guaranteed to all."
At a conference in the fall, Brooks condemned conservatives' "war against the social safety net, which is just insane," and he argued that "we have to declare peace on the safety net."
That's not far from what the Dalai Lama was talking about Thursday, when he pleaded for "a concern for humanity" to drive economic decisions. "We are all created by God, so we all have some spark of God," he said. "Nobody said the creator is full of anger. No — full of compassion. ... We creatures must follow the creator's example. It's wonderful."
Alternatively, conservatives can follow the example of Nugent, as expressed in his 1975 hit, "Stranglehold":
You ran the night that you left me
You put me in my place
I got you in a stranglehold, baby
That night I crushed your face
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.