Where is Clara Peller now that we need her? For those who do not remember this icon of political history, Clara was the actress who played the little old lady in a Wendy's commercial that looked an oversized hamburger bun and snapped back, "Where's the beef?" Walter Mondale then used it as a rhetorical weapon against Gary Hart's call for new ideas in a 1984 debate held before the New York and Pennsylvania primaries for the Democratic presidential candidate. Watching last night's news about the purported agreement that will probably pull together enough votes to pass health care legislation, all I could think about were all the compromises made to give up key reform objectives in order to get that vote. I found myself wishing that Clara would storm the Senate floor shouting "Where's the reform?" Alas, Clara died in 1987, about three years after shooting that Wendy's commercial.
This morning, however, it appears that we may have a Clara surrogate in the unlikely form of Howard Dean. Dean is one of those rare individuals who can see health care from the perspective of both physicians and patients. I would not be surprised that, if you were to ask him about the industrial perspectives of pharmaceuticals, advanced medical technologies, and insurance, he would look you in the eye and tell you to get your priorities straight. It is clear that all industrial players have deployed their best lobbying forces, so one can hardly complain that their voices have not been heard. To the contrary, those voices have been so stentorian that the Senate has barely (if at all) recognized the voices of those who need medical treatment or those professionally qualified to treat them. The closest those voices have come to representation has been in the form of Howard Dean, and he is on the sidelines.
Fortunately, he still knows how to use a bully pulpit; and, just as fortunately, there are those willing to give it to him. In yesterday's New York Times Alessandra Stanley used her TV Watch column to discuss the likelihood that George Stephanopoulos would transcend at least some of the fluff that has been the usual bill of fare on Good Morning America and bring substantive news coverage and analysis back to morning television. Given his personal history with failed efforts at health care reform, it is reasonable to assume that Stephanopoulos had a hand in giving Dean a guest slot on Good Morning America for review of yesterday's Senate follies; and Dean did not mince his words. He called the compromise legislation currently on the table "an insurance company bailout."
The Associated Press account of Dean's salvo also cited the appearance of House Democrat Anthony Weiner on The Early Show, the CBS competition to ABC's Good Morning America. Weiner was quoted as saying:
We can't let the perfect be enemy of the good, but we are reaching a tipping point.
Indeed we are. We have tipped the legislative package so far from its original position that all of the reform has dribbled out from the top. Dean seems to be the only one with the chutzpah to shout "Where's the reform?" If there is no longer any reform in the bill and if the only real beneficiary will be the insurance industry, why is Barack Obama still grandstanding about getting it passed? While we ponder these question, the time seems right to give the Chutzpah of the Week award to Dean for getting us to think about them!