On this July 4th, when it comes to challenges facing America, the Bush Administration demonstrates that the conservative agenda is, to borrow a phrase, part of the problem, not the solution. But progressives need to seize the opening created by the reckless, reactionary and divisive rightwing policies to put forth positive initiatives that address the challenges facing the country.

These initiatives not only need to be large enough to address the festering problems facing us, but also broad enough to engage new allies and attract new supporters, and clear enough to be both compelling and comprehensible.

Anyone interested in a savvy primer on good progressive ideas would have found it at a featured panel–“Five Initiatives for a More Perfect Union,”–at the Campaign for America’s “Taking Back America” conference last month in Washington, DC.

Five leading thinkers and organizers argued–as Yale Professor Jacob Hacker put it–that while conservative policies are “in shambles,” the Right has managed to “transform the straw of slim margins and unpopular policies into the gold of big policy victories.” Progressives, then, need to communicate to the American people that they have good ideas, and that government has a critical role to play in “a new and uncertain era.”

Here, then, are five initiatives for the next time you hear some ethically challenged rightwinger (think Tom DeLay) claim that progressives are obstructionists with no good ideas:

1) “America Needs a Raise.” Stewart Acuff, the organizing director of the AFL-CIO, called attention to the value of a bill called the Employee Free Choice Act. Among other things, it would require employers to recognize unions when workers signed cards and petitions seeking union representation. Acuff stressed that it was vital that we mobilize and empower workers and secure workers’ rights in a new economy and in the face of Bush’s ruthless and systematic attack on American labor. (Click here to read Acuff’s Nation editorial on the legislation.)

2) “Pre-school for All: The Best Economic Development Investment.” Julie Burton, director of Project Kid Smart with People for the American Way, cited the benefits of providing pre-school for every American child. Pre-school would improve kids’ lives. Studies in Chicago and Michigan, for instance, found that kids who attend a quality pre-school learn to read faster, are more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, have more stable marriages and, perhaps not coincidentally, are also less likely to commit a crime.

Equally important is that pre-school, as Burton explained, is also a terrific investment in America’s economic future. People who attend pre-school develop the skills necessary in a modern workforce, and every dollar spent on pre-school reaps the nation $7 down the road. Pre-school generates higher tax revenues and requires less spending on “remedial services.”

3) “Affordable Healthcare for All.” Hacker’s solution to the health care crisis with 45 million uninsured in this country is to expand Medicare–A program Americans know well and those in it like it a lot. Hacker proposes that employers be required either to provide workers with health care coverage or to enroll their employees in Medicare for a modest fee. This plan would cover virtually all of the uninsured and cost less than other leading health care proposals. This doesn’t mean that progressives should stop fighting for universal health care (or what is sometimes –and clunkily– known as single-payer); yet this idea represents a good step on the road to a more civilized society.

4) “A True Family Values Agenda.” Sen. Barack Obama’s policy director Karen Kornbluh argues that contrary to the rightwing drumbeat, progressives are the ones who stand up and fight for family values. Progressives need to address the kitchen-table problems that married women and single mothers grapple with every day–and offer solutions that will make a real difference in their lives. Mothers are now working longer hours, commuting more, and have less time to spend with their kids. Kornbluh urges progressives to rally behind ideas like refundable credits that will help families pay for child care and education; early education and after-school programs and lengthening the school year; making college tuition affordable; providing seven days of sick leave for all workers, and ensuring that workers get to keep their pensions and health insurance if they become part-time workers or take off time to care for their kids.

5) “Apollo: New Energy for America.” The United Mine Workers’ President Cecil Roberts urged the adoption of an Apollo Project to end our nation’s crippling dependence on foreign oil. He laid out an agenda crafted by the Apollo Alliance–a coalition of labor unions, environmental groups and urban leaders–which would organize a 10 year drive for energy independence that would create 3 million new jobs and set America free from foreign oil.

This new strategy to achieve energy independence, as Roberts argues, would break the zero-sum framework of jobs vs. the environment and instead make the case that America can simultaneously create good-paying union work while promoting clean air and clean water in communities nationwide.

ApolloAlliance.org reports that Washington State passed the nation’s first eco-friendly legislation that will slash utility costs, increase employee production and save taxpayers’ money by using state-of-the-art building construction techniques. And Democratic governors from Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Mexico have all urged the White House to “embark on an unprecedented national mission to achieve energy independence within the decade by boldly investing in efficiency, new technology, and alternative energy.”

In the end, then, these five initiatives form some of the building blocks that will help define a forward looking domestic progressive agenda and win over people disillusioned with Bush’s anti-worker, anti-family policies. Enjoy your July Fourth. Then work to build a country that is healthier, fairer, cleaner and more secure.