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Heritage Foundation President: 'Good Public Policy Is Good Economic Policy'


President Trump says governors will decide when to ease coronavirus lockdowns in their states. But he also keeps pushing to restart the U.S. economy as soon as possible. To help guide that effort, the White House announced the formation of what it called great American economic revival industry groups, comprised mostly of corporate CEOs and leaders from other sectors like sports and tech from across the country.

But there's also a group of so-called thought leaders, which includes Kay Coles James. She is president of The Heritage Foundation. That's an influential conservative research and advocacy group. And she's with us now.

Mrs. James, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

KAY COLES JAMES: Well, thank you. And it is my pleasure. I'm a big, big fan.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for that. Has the White House given you any direction about how they would specifically like you to serve - like, what they hope your role will be as a thought leader?

JAMES: Well, you know, we have had one conversation with the president. And he spoke only briefly, and then we had the opportunity to share with him our thoughts. We are encouraged to do that. As you know, it's a rather large group.

So what I decided to do even prior to being named to this particular commission - we decided at The Heritage Foundation to form our own commission, bringing together individuals from a broad spectrum of the American population. And those individuals have been working on recommendations which I will then feed into the commission that I serve on for the president.

MARTIN: So what's your North Star when it comes to this? I mean, you obviously have - it's a complex problem. I think everyone hopes that...

JAMES: Sure.

MARTIN: ...Acknowledge that. And you are already seeking the guidance and input of people that you respect across different fields, and you want to convey that. But what's your North Star?

JAMES: Our North Star is that good public health policy is good economic policy. And we've got to get rid of the or. We have to prioritize getting people back to work, but we can only do that as soon as it's safe enough to do it.

MARTIN: President Trump and the White House issued guidelines on how state economies could reopen, what it could look like in three phases. He said the governors will determine when that's safe. But he's also tweeting support for people who protested against stay-at-home orders in some states, people who are showing up at these events armed, not wearing masks, not observing social distancing guidelines. How do you square that?

JAMES: Well, I don't know that you do, Michel (laughter). I think that the president is - I cannot speak for him. I do not speak for him. But I think that there's a frustration that he is sort of channeling with individuals who live in certain areas of the country who feel like they are not a hot spot, there are certain things that they should be allowed to do.

I also am hearing stories of some governors that are overstepping their bounds. And we're getting questions on a daily basis about religious liberty and whether or not a governor really has the opportunity to shut down - or the power and the authority to shut down a church. So these are dicey issues that have answers that can and will get worked out. I think we're just stress-testing our form of government. And I have every confidence that it's going to work and work well.

MARTIN: I have another question about that, and it speaks to your long-standing role in the conservative movement, as a highly visible person in the conservative movement both inside and outside of government. Some of the states that are pushing to reopen or who have never shut down, like South Dakota, are also some of the states with the most restrictive measures against abortion, which they consider in the service of life.

Now, how is it that states that - if you say that your guiding principle in opposing abortion is to protect a vulnerable life, how is it that these states, whose public officials said that they are protecting vulnerable life, are also unwilling to shut their states down to protect people who are vulnerable for other reasons - people who are immunocompromised, people who may be carrying the virus without knowing that they are doing so? I mean, how is this issue being discussed? How do you understand that within the context of your value system?

JAMES: I don't (laughter) quite frankly. I do believe, as I said, our guiding principle is good public health policy. And I do believe in protecting life in all forms from conception to death. And I do believe in good public health policy. I think that's probably a question you should ask them because I am not going to try to answer that one for you.

MARTIN: How are you weathering this? You said that you're an eternal optimist. But as we discussed at the outset of our conversation, you've seen a number of very serious public health crises in your time, but nothing like this. How are you thinking about this? How are you thinking your way through this?

JAMES: Well, I am thinking my way through this with, as I said, a great deal of optimism about who I know we are as a nation. When I listen to those corporate leaders on the phone as they've turned their factories around to produce PPEs for the American people, as I listen to some of our companies that are producing pharmaceuticals and doing the research on vaccines, I don't think that there's another country on the planet that's better positioned to respond in a crisis like this.

MARTIN: That's Kay Coles James. She's president of the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. As we mentioned, she has a very deep background in public service, and she's serving with the president's advisory group on reopening the country.

Kay Coles James, thank you so much for talking with us. I hope we'll talk again.

JAMES: Well, thank you. And I look forward to it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.