By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; 9:07 PM
PHILADELPHIA - Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine delivered a full-throated defense of his party's record on the economy, health care and financial regulation here Wednesday as he kicked off the fall campaign season with a speech casting the Democrats as underdogs in the battle for control of Congress.
Kaine, a former Virginia governor, sharpened his critique of the Republican Party and warned that President Obama's agenda is in jeopardy if Democrats lose their congressional majorities. It's an argument designed to rally the party's base, which polls suggest is far less enthusiastic about voting this fall than in the previous two election cycles when Democrats made major gains.
In a nod to the treacherous political climate for Democrats, Kaine said the party is the "underdog party" with fewer than two months before the November elections. But, he said, "tough is what Democrats do."
"We campaign tough, we win tough, we govern tough," Kaine told an audience of about 200 Democratic activists at the University of Pennsylvania. "We have always been the underdog party and we are always going to be the underdog party, because we're the ones speaking for regular everyday people throughout this country. We love a tough battle because the nation is counting on us at a challenging time and we know that, while change is never easy, we can't make progress without fighting for it."
Republicans tried to preempt Kaine's criticism with a memo to reporters titled "Strategic Failure." The Republican National Committee statement dismissed Kaine's event as "just another failed ploy to distract from economic woes."
"No amount of name-calling and fear-mongering will solve skyrocketing unemployment, erase record-breaking budget deficits, or cause voters to forget how their elected representatives rammed through Obamacare against their will," RNC spokeswoman Katie Wright said.
In his speech here, Kaine recycled and refined lines that have become Democratic boilerplate on the campaign trail. He presented the election as a choice between Democrats who have been fighting for economic growth and Republicans who want to "go back to the same failed economic politics that lost millions of people their jobs and millions of people their savings."
"The other guys want to take the country back, but we need to have the president's back," Kaine said. "The road isn't easy," he added later, "but we're not going to just step off the path now and leave the president and Congress to go it alone. We're going to be there for them, aren't we?"
Kaine reserved some of his most pointed criticism for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), who would be speaker if Republicans win the majority. Kaine said returning the Republicans to power this fall "would be like giving the keys back to Herbert Hoover in the middle of the 1930s," a reference to the Republican president who oversaw the country's slide to the Great Depression. "We'd be nuts to do it. And that's why we have to fight so hard."
Historically, Kaine said, it has been Democrats who have helped revive the nation at its most challenging times in the 20th century. During the Great Depression, he said, Americans elected Franklin D. Roosevelt; during the tumultuous 1960s, John F. Kennedy; during the economic slowdown of the early 1990s, Bill Clinton; and during the 2008 recession, Obama.
People were hurting and that's why they turned to us," Kaine said. "Well people are still hurting, and that's why they need us."
Kaine then listed some of the most extreme positions of some of the Republican Party's most conservative candidates: Nevada Senate nominee Sharron Angle, Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul and Alaska Senate nominee Rand Paul, who have respectively proposed closing the Department of Education, rolling back some aspects of the 1960s Civil Rights act and phasing out Social Security.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), in his introduction of Kaine, made similar references and joked that the Republican Party had been taken over by "fruit loops."
"It's a party that's slowly but surely being taken over by wackos," Rendell said. "They're nuts. They're flat-out crazyâ¦. We're going to turn the reins of Congress over to these people who are more and more dominated by the wacko wing? Of course not."
Rendell said Democrats have "a lot to sell" but criticized Democrats who are not selling it. For instance, Rendell questioned why some Democratic candidates are not talking about the stimulus bill even though the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said the legislation helped keep the nation's unemployment rate at bay.
"If we get the truth out, the truth will set us free," Rendell said, adding: "Our own candidates don't talk about the stimulus, and they should, because it worked."