05/18/2006 01:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Recruit Republicans With Ideas, Not Politics

Depressing news. The world is turning against us. Polling used to show how those queried in other countries separated American citizens from their government. Seems that is changing. Which makes Karen Hughes' speech last week at the Council on Foreign Relations both ironic and probably too late. Her main theme: Our actions must match our rhetoric. After 5 plus years in leadership the Bush administration finally acknowledges that reciprocity (doing unto others....) and legitimacy (leading by example) are strategic assets.

That the administration's chief campaign messenger is making this point is significant. It is an indirect acknowledgement that her gang has let politics trump good public policy far too often and the results are hurting them. Perhaps Hughes has become reflective in order to attract back the Republicans who are turned off by the Bush administration's leadership.

It's time for progressives to go on a recruitment drive to attract Republicans. I just spent three days at bipartisan workshops, one on internal security and the erosion of democracy, the other on re-balancing our national security policy so as to not over-militarize it. These meetings included conservatives (not just libertarians) and liberals, Democrats and Republicans. "Something's rotten" seemed to be a consistent theme--and in both cases the many problems discussed led back to philosophical beliefs about the role of government. Good government Republicans are starting to get annoyed and we need to attract them to our side.

Sure, its gratifying to say "I told you so" or that they should have seen this all along and done something about it. That might be true, but its not going to help us out of our dual predicament of being unloved and increasingly corrupt. We've entered a national political terrain that should be a progressive haven--discussing the role of government as a problem-solving agent, a collective risk-taker and a guardian of public goods.

The starting point of this conversation, however, must avoid the traps laid by conservative rhetoric architects over the past decades. Long ago, conservatives began to blur the lines between "progressive" "liberal" and "Democrats". This allowed them to purge liberal Republicans and lump the rest of us in the deviant---now the "America hating"--basket.

Note how few liberal Republicans exist in Congress in contrast to a sizeable chunk of conservative Democrats. This realignment has given conservatives a ground field advantage because it is easier for them to cast progressives as partisans (this imbalance has huge implications for policy advocacy and for philanthropic funding). The key today is to avoid this rhetorical trap. We must not equate progressives with the Democratic party. They are not synonymous, no matter how tempting. Progressives need to create the philosophical habitat where the Democrats can once again find a home. The Dems are a party still largely driven by polled issues as opposed to convictions. This is improving, but it will take time.

We need to build a progressive philosophy separate from the Democratic party so we can call lousy leadership on their actions right out the gate. We know that American leadership depends on reciprocity and legitimacy, for example--that these qualities made us great. Why has it taken 5 years for Hughes to mention it in a speech? And Rove is preparing to smash and grab the national trust again for '06. His campaign murmur this time round will probably be be attacking Iran. Their policy is becoming the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet it works politically.

Progressives must use these attacks as a pivot in every single "soft on security" accusation to discuss real national security policies--like determining the mission of the US Army and asking why have we privatized so much of our national security? And by the way, where is the money going? Everything purporting to serve national security ends needs to be on the table and up for discussion. Good government Republicans know this--which makes them ripe for the grabbing.