Heritage Foundation President On The Conservative Movement
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Today marks the end of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, also known as CPAC. It's one of the nation's largest gatherings of conservative leaders. Political figures from all over the country get together to talk about the state of the conservative movement and what comes next. Among those speakers was Kay Coles James. She's a longtime conservative activist who worked in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and both Bushes. She also worked on Donald Trump's transition team. She recently became president of the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. I spoke to her this week and asked her if she sees conservatives getting behind gun control in light of recent - the recent debate which dominated headlines at CPAC.
KAY COLES JAMES: Are conservatives in this country ready to think through these issues? You better believe we are. And what excites me more than anything is seeing young people step forward and lead this discussion and to lead this debate. I would say that I think that the role that the conservative movement can play, and particularly The Heritage Foundation, is by providing information, data, research and analysis to inform that debate.
MCCAMMON: What are those messages, though, that you think might resonate and should be communicated better to younger voters?
JAMES: Well, you know, I have said internally to the Heritage staff here that I think our natural constituency - wait for it - is a Bernie Sanders voter.
MCCAMMON: For Heritage Foundation?
JAMES: Absolutely. And the reason is because - and I have said this as I've spoken to young people - I defy you to say that you care more about poor people than I do because you don't. I defy you to say that you want equal opportunity and access to the American dream for everyone in this country more than I do because you don't. You know, I think we've got to stop questioning each other's motives, each other's character, each other's integrity. And we've got to accept the fact that people coming from different directions on the political spectrum care deeply about this country and about the issues that we want to resolve.
MCCAMMON: Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is himself a prominent conservative, gave a speech in the wake of Parkland where he framed that gun violence issue in terms of the right to life. That's the phrase he used. He said law enforcement has a responsibility to protect the right to life above everything else. That's language we often hear more often from conservatives in regard to abortion. But is it a lens through which conservatives should also be talking about gun violence?
JAMES: That's interesting. I had not heard those comments. But, you know, I have always thought that the larger issue was that in this country we should have a high regard for the dignity and the value and the sanctity of human life. And of course we should protect the lives of those students in schools. We, as adults, should step up and look at everything that we can do to make sure that when we send our children and our grandchildren into these school situations that they are safe.
MCCAMMON: You've said recently that you want to expand the base of the conservative movement. How do you see that happening?
JAMES: Well, I see that happening by taking our message and taking the conservative movement into places where perhaps they haven't been before. If we can't figure out how to take our ideas to millennials and convince them that we're right, we should probably close our doors. If we can't take the messages that we have and make them compelling to the women of this country, we should probably close our doors. And if we aren't willing to go into minority communities all over this country and present our case, we should probably close our doors.
MCCAMMON: It must be pointed out, though, that a lot of the energy among young people and people of color right now is very oriented around anti-Trump activism. We saw that in Virginia and Alabama in the 2017 elections, according to exit polls. What does the association with Trump, of the Republican Party, of the conservative movement mean for those efforts to try to recruit those voters?
JAMES: Well, I think it's important for people to - and which is why I make the distinction between the conservative movement, The Heritage Foundation and the Republican Party. We are not the RNC. We are not the administration. We are the head of the conservative movement.
MCCAMMON: Kay Coles James, president of The Heritage Foundation, thanks so much.
JAMES: Thank you, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.