Howard Dean has long cultivated an image as the plainspoken doctor who speaks for the left wing of the Democratic Party, a role he still plays as a pugnacious pundit on TV. But since his term as chairman of the Democratic National Committee ended in January 2009, Dr. Dean has taken on a less-noticed role: paid advocate for interest groups that would find few fans among the progressive voters once energized by Dean's 2004 presidential bid.
Dean may not be the worst of the 'buckrakers,' those prototypical capital characters who exploit their name and connections without regard for principle. But his recent political forays seem to have diverged from his trailblazing left-liberal past.
As senior strategic advisor at McKenna Long & Aldridge, a heavyweight Washington lobbying firm, Dean played a prominent role representing the biotech industry during the healthcare bill debate, staking out a position on biopharmaceutical drugs that was decried by consumer groups.
'Gov. Dean was very helpful to us,' biotech CEO Jim Greenwood told a trade publication 'As a physician clearly focused on healthcare, a Democrat leader and clearly to left of center, his efforts were impactful.' Greenwood is the head of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a trade group that lobbies for the industry in Washington.
Dean arrived in the comfortable K Street offices of McKenna Long & Aldridge shortly after his term as DNC chair ended in January 2009. He had been passed over by President Obama for the secretary of health and human services Cabinet post, and he needed a paying job.
In announcing his appointment, the firm said Dean would 'provide guidance to clients, particularly in the areas of healthcare and alternative energy resources.'
Dean has been careful not to register as a lobbyist, a designation that would prompt legal disclosure requirements. Both McKenna and the governor's spokeswoman declined to reveal which clients he has worked for.
Dean took on a very public role during the 2009 healthcare reform battle, specifically going to bat for the biotech industry -- whose trade association is a client of McKenna.
At stake was how the government would regulate a growing class of drugs called biologics or biopharmaceuticals and their generic competitors. The industry argued for a longer period -- at least 12 years -- in which expensive brand-name biologics would face no competition from less costly generics. Consumer groups argued that, to keep costs down, the period of exclusivity should be just five years.
Dean jumped into the fight on the side of the industry, writing an Op-Ed in the Hill in 2009 arguing that a 'commonsense and fair approach' would be to bar generics for 'at least 12 years.'
'If we discourage investment, we jeopardize the development of the next generation of breakthrough medicines and cures,' he wrote, echoing a key industry talking point.
Dr Dean also apparently did some paid health policy advocacy on behalf of other clients:
In January, he waded into another high-stakes healthcare fight, this one being waged in New York state between foreign medical schools and their American competitors. The issue was whether foreign-trained doctors would have access to hospitals in New York for their residencies. Dean wrote an Op-Ed in the Albany Times-Union, 'N.Y. needs its foreign-trained doctors,' that repeated talking points of foreign medical schools, which, Dean's bio blurb noted, are clients of McKenna Long & Aldridge.
While the firm won't say whom Dean has worked for, his bio page on McKenna's website offers some clues.
Dean also took on a few other jobs for corporate health care. For example,
He currently serves on the board of advisors at Vatera Health Partners, a New York-based venture capital fund whose mission is 'to support and grow emerging biopharmaceutical companies.'
It's not clear from the public record how long he has served in the position. But his presence on the Vatera board indicates that he has a personal financial stake in the biopharmaceutical industry.
Also, he is now
serving on the board of Extendicare, a Canadian long-term care company.
Dr Dean's new job did not sit well with a former colleagues on the left side of the US political spectrum who had a distinctly different position on the issue of biologic exclusivity:
'It was devastating to have him involved because of his reputation,' says James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a public interest group that fought for a shorter period of exclusivity. 'He's considered to be independent of industry and on the left, so it was really shocking to us when we first saw this. But there it was.'
The Salon article ended on this disillusioned note:
Dean is indeed uniquely positioned: Between his former followers and his current clients, between his idealist liberal past and the cynical culture of K Street, between independence and cooptation.
We have discussed how other government officials and political leaders transited the revolving door to work for corporate health care (e.g., starting here, and more lately here). However, this most recent case seems to present the most vivid contrast between previous reputation and later employment. Actually, while Dr Dean was clearly an advocate for changing health care, he was not a supporter of some ideas usually labeled left-wing," such as a single payer system (see here). However, the Washington Times reported that when he was running for President in 2004, the Club for Growth Political Action committee ran an television advertisement calling him the proprietor of a:
tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading … Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show
The transformation of Dr Howard Dean from a target of the Club for Growth to a paid helper and talking points echoer of the Biotechnology Industry Organization illustrates that nowadays the revolving door accommodates all kinds of politicians. The door remains legal, but its continuing rapid spin raises more and more concern that even the ostensibly most left-wing politicians may act to avoid offending any future lucrative corporate employer. So the coziness between government and the medical-industrial complex is increasingly revealed, and the ability of current government officials and politicians to represent the people rather than corporate CEOs is increasingly in doubt.
True health care reform would have to somehow reduce the resultant corporatism.