Tuesday, December 19, 2017
There are tens of millions of American citizens who are not natural born, or whose status as natural born is a matter of some dispute. A naturalized citizen like Jennifer Granholm or Arnold Schwarzenegger is plainly ineligible for the presidency, for example, while someone born abroad to an American parent, like Ted Cruz, may or may not be eligible depending on the legal meaning of "natural born." With so many people excluded or placed under a shadow by the "natural born" requirement, there is no particular partisan valence to an amendment that eliminates it. But that kind of valence is inescapable once a proposed amendment appears instrumental to a particular person's candidacy.
One reason to move quickly on eliminating the "natural born" presidential eligibility requirement is to get it done before the amendment can be tied to a particular potential candidate. Examples of how partisan politics can distort perceptions are easy to come by. While the "birther" controversy about Barack Obama was brewing, for example, some were suspicious of attempts to eliminate the "natural born" requirement. Similarly, controversies about Republicans like John McCain and Ted Cruz led to (sometimes justified) accusations of motivated reasoning in dismissing concerns about "natural born" status.
Another reason to move quickly is that the idea is an obvious political winner with virtually no political downside. Politicians whose stances on illegal immigration have led to charges of anti-immigrant bias should be tripping over themselves to get out in front in support of an amendment to remove the last vestige of citizenship inequality. For them, the problem with illegal immigration is that it is illegal. People who follow the rules to become naturalized citizens are in a totally different category from people who haven't followed the rules and have stayed in the shadows as a consequence. Throwing symbolic support behind those who follow the rules is a way of underscoring this aspect of their viewpoint. That the support is largely symbolic does not make it insignificant. Symbolism matters.
Timing also matters. If an amendment to eliminate the "natural born" requirement were to become associated with Democrats before Republicans, that would probably guarantee that it goes nowhere in the present political climate. For too many, it would be viewed as just another mushy Democrat play for the immigrant vote. Interestingly, though, the partisan taint would probably not run in the other direction. If Republicans were to be the first champions of eliminating the "natural born" requirement, it could be attacked as politically opportunistic, to be sure. But the move could also be viewed as clever and perhaps even refreshing among the cynically minded, rather than as soft or devious. The merits of eliminating the "natural born" requirement would be sufficiently attractive to Democrats precisely on the merits that Republican championship of the amendment would not prevent them from also supporting it.
To get the ball rolling, it will be necessary to find the right political champions. Fortunately, that should not be difficult. There have been so many past failures to amend the natural born citizen requirement that the ranks of past proponents provide a natural place to start. And studying the reasons for those failures (apart from the sheer difficulty of the amendment process) can supply some starting insights about what to do differently.