“Save our sick babies!” chanted one group, as it held up pictures of bandaged infants in hospital beds.
“Save our Constitution!” chanted back another, waving copies of documents printed in Old English type.
The Supreme Court will spend two more days reviewing the 2010 health-care law, but everyone on the steps had already rendered a verdict. When it comes to a divisive president’s most divisive piece of legislation, public opinion leaves little room for middle ground. Monday’s rallies outside the court became a debate of liberals against conservatives; tea partyers against Occupiers; atheists against evangelicals; Rick Santorum against President Obama; women’s rights advocates against abortion opponents.
They faced off for more than seven hours, each trying to leave a more memorable impression than the other. Both sides sang their own versions of the national anthem. “Let’s make ours louder,” a leader of the second group said. Pastors supporting the law knelt on the steps to pray, followed by other pastors who oppose it, followed by more clergy members who prayed only for harmony between the two sides. One group of health-care proponents chanted in catchy rhymes until they ran out of them. “If you have a new cheer, please come over here!” they sang.
It was less a legal debate than a political show, where everything became a matter of stagecraft. Those who prayed sometimes did so into microphones, backing away from the steps to make room for the cameras that filmed them. A woman set aside a sign that read “Don’t Believe the Media” to give a stream of interviews. Doctors who had taken the week off to voice support for the bill wore white coats and, in at least one case, a stethoscope.
“We are looking for real people to tell their stories,” a leader of the pro-reform coalition announced early in the morning, and, one by one, real people volunteered to become “real people.” They were led to a nearby church, where 25 liberal radio hosts from across the country broadcast live interviews with advocates for reform. They shared their health-care calamities, rotating from one radio table to the next, telling their stories in five-minute slots.
“The real trouble for me started right before chemo,” one woman said.
“My first bill was $26,000,” said another.
“I just wish they would have passed this health-care reform in time for Don,” said a third.
As they kept talking, Ellena Young stepped to a small lectern at the center of the rally holding a 2-year-old son, dressed in a suit. The 31-year-old mother from Albany, N.Y., wore a sticker on her chest that read: “Ask me about my health care story,” but she planned to tell it unprompted. She had agreed to give a last-minute speech on behalf of a patients’ rights group, buying the suit for her son at Men’s Wearhouse and flying to Washington to give more than a dozen interviews in less than 36 hours.