Health proponents keep enemies close

President Barack Obama and key Democrats on Capitol Hill have been widely credited with shrewdly persuading powerful interest groups to keep their weapons sheathed as the healthcare reform effort has advanced.

Obama has gotten some heat from liberals over cozying up to drug companies and others, but the strategy of keeping their enemies close has had a clear, positive effect for the White House and the congressional Democrats trying to get a bill passed.

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Before Obama even took office, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the late Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) went to great pains to make healthcare industry groups feel comfortable at the negotiating table.

As the fiery opposition from grassroots conservatives and activist groups has demonstrated, healthcare reform — and liberals such as Obama — have no shortage of enemies.

But while it’s certainly no guarantee of success for Obama, keeping major industry groups from using their might to fend off healthcare reform proposals they don’t like has minimized what could have been another major roadblock.

The White House, in conjunction with Baucus, has cut deals with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the American Hospital Association and others to woo them.

These deals irritated liberals, especially congressional leaders and committee chairmen who declared they aren’t bound to agreements made with the White House. But they also did a great deal to encourage Big Pharma to run ads saying healthcare reform is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Whatever other challenges healthcare reform poses, Democrats and their allies aren’t spending their time fighting off full-scale attacks from special interests in the healthcare sector. Indeed, the drug industry and others have instead used their considerable organizing and financial resources to support the notion of reform (if not all the specifics).

“Some of these groups were among the strongest critics of past plans for comprehensive reform,” Obama said in May at an event featuring the drug and medical device industries, health insurers, physicians and healthcare workers.

These same groups could well play the same role this year, especially if the more liberal House bill becomes Obama’s preferred vehicle for healthcare reform. But if they do, they’re going to be getting started a lot later than they would have, which in itself would stand as an accomplishment for this White House.