By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 8:00 PM
At the beginning of 2009, the choice before Democrats who controlled the 111th Congress was whether they would enact historic legislation, even at the risk of their majority, or whether they would play it safe.
They gave the safe option a pass, with two results: This will go down as the most productive Congress since the 89th, which was even more Democratic because of Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide. And 52 Democratic House incumbents, most elected in 2006 or 2008, lost their seats .
The departing Democrats are, as one in their ranks put it, "Obama's Orphans." So many of them cast vote after vote for the president's program. They were then left at the side of the road while history moved by.
During the recent campaign, these loyalists were accused of being "out of touch," and they certainly were out of sync with the prevailing mood of those who chose to vote this year. But this accusation raises an important question: To whom did these members owe their real loyalty?
Instead of yielding to the feelings of the moment, they kept faith with those who supported them precisely because of their promises to change the direction of the country. And change the country they did.
Say what you will about the new health-care law. It was a response to (how easily we forget) a widely held sentiment that our health system was broken, that too many of us lacked coverage or feared we might lose it. The final product was a start in addressing these anxieties.
It is a tribute to the 111th Congress that its achievements will largely set the agenda for the 112th. The new Republican House majority is devoted less to a bold agenda of its own than to repealing, scaling back or derailing the accomplishments of the outgoing majority.
The fact that wiping out what they call "Obamacare" is a unifying priority for the conservative newcomers is a backhanded compliment to those who enacted it: Yes, it was a big deal after all, and in the forthcoming debate, reform's supporters will get a second chance to make the case for what they did.
Republicans also hope to undercut financial reform, giving the law's supporters the opportunity to explain more clearly why a financial system with loose rules becomes little more than a casino operated by people in much nicer suits than those worn by the average croupier.
And some of the 111th's achievements will stand without challenge because they so plainly reflected the country's will. Congressional leaders never gave up on ending "don't ask, don't tell," knowing they were building on a three-decade-long revolution in the attitudes of average Americans toward gays and lesbians. That really is a change we can believe in.
That so many other reforms have been virtually unheralded is another monument to the efforts of Obama's Orphans. Bills that in another Congress would have loomed large were passed with hardly a ripple in the media.
Consider: the new food-safety rules, the big repair in the student-loan program, stronger regulations on the credit-card industry, the creation of a financial consumer protection agency, an improved children's health-care program and a broad expansion of national service opportunities.
The startling achievements of this lame-duck session owed to the decision of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to shun the counsel of those who said they should just pack it in after a bad election. If a certain amount of boldness had cost some of their colleagues at the polls in November, the same audacity would at least permit those on their way out to add to their record. They would use their majorities right to the end.
Our media and political systems are obsessed with presidents. We are also very tough on those who lose, in elections no less than in sports. As a result, end-of-year commentary will concentrate on how much stronger President Obama looks today than he did even a month ago, and on all he got done. The vanquished of 2010 will get barely a nod on their way to the rest of their lives.
But the president's accomplishments were possible only because a group of younger, largely unsung politicians - the infantry of political change - refused to think only about polls, politics and their personal ambitions. Obama's Orphans deserve to take a bow.