It was a classic success story: The son of a doctor graduated with honors from a top university, attended one of the country’s best law schools, and landed a job clerking for the Supreme Court. He switched to the private sector and rose gracefully to the top of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company. He then helped to broker a deal between a powerful industry group and an unassailably popular president to enact legislation that would touch the life of every American.
And then everything went wrong.
Jeff Kindler, former CEO of Pfizer, resigned suddenly in December 2010 under pressure from his board. Subsequently, details about his backroom negotiations with the Obama administration came to light, raising questions about whether he was pursuing his industry’s interests or his own political ambitions. Without Kindler’s clout in the pharmaceutical world, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act might never have passed. But the deal he cut ended up hurting his industry.
Kindler clerked for Justice William J. Brennan after graduating from Harvard Law School. From there, he took an unorthodox path to corporate leadership, becoming the general counsel of McDonald’s before rising to the presidency of McDonald’s Partner Brands. Eventually, Pfizer spotted Kindler and wooed him with an offer to supervise more than 300 lawyers as general counsel — and the possibility of rising higher still. Within five years, Kindler was CEO of Pfizer and the most influential board member of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s powerful trade association. He was also a committed Democrat, which made him an invaluable resource for the Obama administration as it began the now-infamous negotiations that led up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Kindler was no stranger to politics. He donated to the 2008 presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, and Obama. Like many corporate figures, he has given to both sides of the aisle, but the numbers make his preferences clear — $5,600 to Republicans and $31,350 to Democrats. His ascent was especially significant at Pfizer, a company that had traditionally aligned itself with conservative groups, including the American Enterprise Institute and the National Review Institute. “He was a partisan Democrat,” says a former Pfizer lobbyist.“That was obvious to everybody when he came in.”
He was also well connected — according to the White House visitor log, Kindler visited the White House or the Old Executive Office Building 14 times between May 2009 and February 2012. Six of those visits came before the passage of the Affordable Care Act. He has met with President Obama five times. PhRMA’s head lobbyist at the time, Wilbert “Billy” Tauzin, was present for many of Kindler’s White House meetings.
As the leader of Pfizer, Kindler began to change how the corporation made contributions to political parties and candidates. Instead of giving primarily to groups and individuals that shared the corporation’s policy priorities, Kindler insisted that donations be divided 50/50 between Republicans and Democrats.
Critics argued that in some cases he put his political commitments ahead of the good of the company. A lobbyist recalls attending one fundraising event with Kindler at which they ran into a woman who was challenging an incumbent for a congressional seat. She and the CEO chatted about politics and complained about the Republican party. After she left, Kindler told the lobbyist that he thought Pfizer should support the candidate’s campaign, even though he had not heard a word about her position on issues relevant to Pfizer. “Don’t you think we ought to check out her record, and her position on issues like drug importation and price controls?” the lobbyist asked. “Oh, yeah, yeah, we ought to do that,” Kindler replied.
“This guy’s not a Pfizer CEO,” the lobbyist says. “He’s a partisan Democrat first.” Many in the industry speculate that Kindler had hoped to eventually join the Obama administration.
That made him an important figure in the negotiations over health-care reform. Avik Roy, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributor to National Review, and member of Mitt Romney’s health-care-policy advisory group, says that part of the reason health-care legislation failed under the Clinton administration was that the pharmaceutical industry adamantly opposed it. So winning its support this time around was essential.