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On Tuesday afternoon I attended a health reform rally at Chicago’s Federal Plaza.  (Readers should know that I attended in the capacity of a supporter/observer, and am not a fully detached reporter covering this one.)  The event included impressive headliners: Representative Jan Schakowsky, Governor Pat Quinn, County Board President Todd Stroger, and many others. Wendell Potter, the former Cigna publicity executive, also spoke.

It is surprisingly hard for an amateur to gauge crowd size. The Chicago Tribune reported that hundreds of people were there. Health reform advocates vastly outnumbered the conservative counter-protesters from across the street. Most audience members were longtime health advocates, union folks, or were somehow connected to Health Care for America Now. (The photo you see here is theirs.) Chicago is Obama central. Not surprisingly, Obama t-shirts and buttons were present in abundance. The crowd sang Happy Birthday to the President with genuine sweetness; while many onlookers smiled or honked in approval. 

Single-payer advocates were also out in force. Most were unsympathetic with the speakers. Several were festooned with gags symbolizing Congress’s failure to hold a vote for HR676. (Speaker Pelosi has now promised a vote as part of the deal to move the House Bill out of Energy and Commerce. It’s not clear that this symbolic move would leads those gags to come off.) They were having none of the weak medicine the President is offering. A few suggested that they are trying to provide a progressive counterweight to the Blue Dogs, but most simply dismissed current incremental reforms. Several noted with some justice that moderate Democratic proposals now being considered are no more likely than single-payer to attract bipartisan support or to avoid vitriolic Republican response.

One single-payer advocate, part of a group costumed in the manner of Charlie Chaplin, likened the public plan to prescribing an aspirin to treat a heart attack. He told me that he voted for Cynthia McKinney in 2008. He hastened to add, however, that he would have voted for Obama if he lived in a swing state.

A bicyclist was heckling the speakers. He chanted “Read the bill. Read the bill.” He had an amazingly loud voice that suggested heavy metal experience. The lady next to me, an HCAN volunteer, shouted back, “I’ve read the bill. I am a healthcare worker.” He responded loudly, but good-naturedly, “bullshit.” I asked him whether he was part of a group. He is a Chicago Tea Party Patriot, one of six groups he said were present to counter-protest. “They only gave us two days notice. Otherwise we would have filled this plaza.”

Twenty or thirty counter-protesters were gathered across the street. I walked over and chatted with them. It was clear that this was no Astroturf group. These were genuinely concerned citizens, one carrying a sign that read: “Senator Durbin, my insurance provider didn’t pay me to protest.”

It was equally clear that these people are fairly nuts. One man carried a sign that on one side read, “Traitor Rats.” The other side showed a picture of President Obama with a hammer and sickle. Some beefy guys were shouting “USA, USA.” It was surprisingly creepy.

I talked with one retired vet carrying a sign that read, “Drop dead, I’m not paying for your health care.” I asked what he meant by that. He said, simply, “I should not have to pay for your medical care.” I asked him if he applies that standard to Medicare. Yes he does. I asked if he therefore feels guilty using the program. “I use the VA.”

Update: Further reporting, via Adam Doster, can be found here.