With just a few words, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy became the leading Democratic critic of President Bush’s policy in Iraq and completely changed the nature of the debate.
For the past two weeks, Mr. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, has been leading his party’s opposition to the war, calling it a “fraud” cooked up for political reasons. On Friday, Mr. Kennedy went further, accusing the president, in effect, of killing American troops through poor planning.
“The tragedy is that our troops are paying with their lives because their commander in chief let them down,” he said.
Republicans have responded with outrage, and yesterday House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said the remarks are a defining moment for the Democratic Party.
“Ted Kennedy has accused the president of treason, and no Democratic leader has had the guts to speak their mind about the accusation,” Mr. DeLay said. “After all, opposing the war on terror may not be cowardly but staying silent about charges of treason is.”
After 41 years in the Senate, Mr. Kennedy is used to being a leading critic. But at a time when the 10 Democratic presidential aspirants have been one-upping each other in criticizing Mr. Bush, Mr. Kennedy has blown by all of them.
Some Democratic leaders have since embraced Mr. Kennedy, with presidential candidate the Rev. Al Sharpton doing so at a Congressional Black Caucus event Friday.
“This is the Kennedy tradition. We stand with you,” Mr. Sharpton said. “You have nothing to apologize for.”
Two weeks ago, Mr. Kennedy began by calling the war a “fraud” and said the administration was using promises of aid to bribe nations into sending troops or money to Iraq.
The New York Times reported this weekend that some Democrats privately say Mr. Kennedy probably went too far, but publicly they are not criticizing him.
Asked whether they agreed with his remarks, Democratic leaders like Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York instead blasted Mr. Kennedy’s critics, with Mr. Daschle calling the Republican responses “McCarthyesque.”
At age 71 and with four decades in the Senate, Mr. Kennedy is at the center of policy-making as well as Democratic dissent. In January of last year, he was the first prominent lawmaker to call for the repeal of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts — a call since taken up by most Democratic leaders, including the presidential candidates.
Republicans say part of the reason for Mr. Kennedy’s high profile the past few years is that Mr. Bush is active on traditional Democratic issues, such as education and Medicare — issues Mr. Kennedy has been at the forefront of for years.
He worked out a compromise education bill with Mr. Bush, and Republican as well as Democratic senators said his support of the Medicare compromise bill in the Senate earlier this year was critical to its passage.
“I think he’s at the center of American politics today, as he has been for 40 years. If anything he’s more relevant today than ever. He’s at the top of his game,” said Philip Johnston, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee.
But not everyone is convinced of Mr. Kennedy’s approach.
“He should be arrested and tried for treason,” said Republican pollster Michael McKenna.
After two prominent losses by Kennedy family members in Maryland elections last year, Mr. McKenna polled national voters to gauge Mr. Kennedy’s political relevance.
His January poll found that 72 percent of those surveyed correctly placed Mr. Kennedy as “alive and serving in the U.S. Senate,” while 10 percent responded that he was dead and 7 percent said he had retired. Ten percent either said they didn’t know or refused to answer.
Among voters under age 35, 52 percent could properly place Mr. Kennedy alive and serving in the Senate, Mr. McKenna’s poll found. The survey polled 600 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
Among Democrats, though, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll taken at the end of last year showed that 11 percent saw Mr. Kennedy as the voice of the party. He was topped only by Mr. Daschle and former President Bill Clinton, and was tied with Mrs. Clinton.
Some Republicans see Mr. Kennedy more as a brand name than anything else. As one characterized it, the party turns to him to seek the stamp of liberal approval on policies. That’s particularly true of judicial nominations, where Mr. Kennedy’s opposition to a nominee is a good sign that the party as a whole will oppose someone.
“Is he still relevant? He’s no more or less relevant than any other senator with seniority,” Mr. McKenna said.
But Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley said Republicans’ actions prove Mr. Kennedy’s relevance.
“Of course, the smarter Republicans, when they want to try to get a piece of legislation passed, he’s usually the first one they’re going to call,” Mr. Manley said.