Demonstrators Pro and Con Greet Supreme Court Health Care Decision

The scene outside was a vivid representation of America’s messy democracy in action. By Lloyd Grove.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

In the blistering oven outside the Supreme Court Thursday morning, two skimpily clad, bespangled young women calling themselves “belly dancers for single payer” shook their booties, while a male companion pounded a beledi drum and another one played a flutelike instrument called a mizmar.

A black-shrouded figure with a skull mask, carrying a sign reading “Grim Reaper for Obamacare,” lurked ominously on the marble steps amid a mob of chanting Tea Partiers. A woman wearing an American flag armband and nursing a lit cigarette (“I’m trying to quit,” she claimed) argued that not just President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, but also Social Security and Medicare, are unconstitutional. She was contradicted by another woman holding aloft a massive placard, reading “Real Access to Healthcare. Thanx Obamacare."

Elsewhere, a dozen protesters held up signs urging “Defund Planned Parenthood” while two dozen others, apparently dispatched by the Obama campaign, raised placards containing the talking point “Moving Forward. Protecting Our Care.” A few feet away, a sorrowful-looking Jesus Christ—or a reasonable facsimile thereof—surveyed the chaos.

Thus is history made.

As the famously disagreeable summer Washington temperatures rose to unhealthy levels—the merciless sun sadistically amplified by television lights—a certain delirium set in. Brain cells sizzled and turned to ash. Mad dogs and political junkies!

“I have pursued my ego to the steps of the Supreme Court on a hot day,” explained Republican economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who had filed three amicus briefs as the Obamacare challenge made its way through the courts. He was standing under a shade tree—“for survival,” he explained. There was some confusion as to whether Holtz-Eakin was there as a Mitt Romney surrogate. A Romney staffer said he was; the economist insisted he wasn’t—“although I certainly agree with him.”

Nearby and under the same tree, George Washington University Medical School Professor Michael Newman, wearing a white physician’s coat, had come to support the president. Glancing at the noisy naysayers, he ventured, “I’m glad they’re out in the sun and taking a beating. You can’t have a conversation with them.”

Artist Theresa BrownGold—the Obamacare supporter who was debating the cigarette-smoking Tea Partier on intricacies of the Constitution—said she’s been closely studying the legislation for the past two years and planning her trip from Doylestown, Pa., to the Supreme Court today. “I’m so happy I think I’m going to faint,” she said. “I’m weak in the knees. Actually, if you had a bottle of water right now, I’d take it.”

It’s perfectly understandable how Fox News and CNN—red-faced from more than the feverish heat—initially got the high court’s decision wrong, incorrectly reporting that the individual insurance mandate, the centerpiece of Obama’s signature legislation (and of then-governor Mitt Romney’s statewide program back in Massachusetts, but never mind), had been struck down.

“It’s very complicated,” said a dark-suited Republican congressional staffer, staring into his iPhone and reading the incremental reports of the bench decision from the staffers deployed inside the courtroom. “I wouldn’t make any assertions just yet.” A moment later, he heaved a sigh. “The entire Affordable Care Act is upheld. The bottom line: We lost.”

Though that ultimately proved somewhat untrue (a key Medicaid provision was rejected by the court), boos and wild cheers rose up from the crowd. “Health-care for all! Health-care for all!” cried pro-Obama hecklers trying to drown out a Russian-born Republican warning over a loudspeaker that “affordable health care is nothing but slavery and tyranny! ... Freedom is precious. Once you lose it, you cannot take it back!”

A human dressed in a heavy Scooby-Doo costume pushed his way through the sweating humanity. Why? Like many occurrences in the nation’s capital, it was a mystery that could not be solved by deadline. Speaking of animal costumes, even former Rep. David Wu, Democrat of Oregon, who was forced to resign his seat after sending staffers a photo of himself in a tiger suit and other eccentric conduct, showed up to give his two cents. He liked the court’s decision. Across the street, a banner was unfurled: “Public Option Now!”

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When Rep. Steve King, the socially conservative Republican from Iowa, got to the microphone, he was on fire. Or maybe he just wasn’t feeling well and needed medical attention.

“What I’m seeing gives me a sick feeling in my stomach,” King complained. “Obamacare is a malignant tumor that feeds and metastasizes on American liberty.”

Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia, a Republican and an obstetrician-gynecologist, was somewhat more measured. “It is shocking to me, absolutely,” he said, citing the unexpected position of Chief Justice John Roberts, who was supposed to be a diehard conservative when George W. Bush nominated him to the court.

“I’m not going to sit here and call for the impeachment of Chief Justice John Roberts on the basis of this decision,” Gingrey added. “People will. They definitely will. They feel angry… I’m bitterly disappointed with his decision and I will fight like the dickens to repeal this law, and do this with President Romney.”

As the sun reached high noon, Romney made much the same point during a brief rooftop statement on the9th floor of an office building filled with lobbyists and political consultants and affording a majestic view of the Capitol.

“If we want to get rid of Obamacare,” the Republican nominee-designate said, “we’re going to have to replace President Obama.”

He was barely perspiring.