Democrats and liberal Republicans dismiss the constitutional amendment to protect marriage against judicial redefinition as hasty fiddling with the Constitution. But it turns out that they would like to fiddle with the Constitution this year themselves. Barney Frank and others in Congress are advancing a constitutional amendment that would permit foreign-born presidents. The constitutional prohibition tells immigrants “that they are somehow flawed,” says Frank.
The left’s mania for concocted rights and egalitarian leveling is unremitting. Democrats in California made news earlier this year by demanding that the franchise be extended to children at elementary schools. Can minors, criminals, the insane, foreigners vote and run for office? Sure, why not? Let’s take egalitarian democracy all the way — that’s basically the attitude on the left, and it drives everything from abolishing the electoral college to provisional balloting to Frank’s amendment. For the purposes of stalling the marriage amendment, Frank and his liberal friends faked up an interest in “federalism” earlier in the year — arguing that the people’s use of a constitutional amendment was somehow unconstitutional even though the Constitution gives them that amendment power — but normally they have contempt for the republican concepts underlying the Constitution and seek to erase any distinction, no matter how rational, that interferes with their egalitarian vision. The United Nations hasn’t enumerated a right to run for the U.S. presidency as a universal human right, but give it time.
Let’s not change the Constitution for light and transient reasons, say the critics of the marriage amendment. But the “Arnold amendment” satisfies their search for constitutional gravity. Journalists who reject the marriage amendment as election-year hackery are listening respectfully to the creators of amendus.org, a website where you can learn about the need to amend the Constitution “for Arnold” Schwarzenegger as well as “join Arnold’s team” and “get Arnold stuff.”
Fortunately, Barney Frank’s amendment and the others floating around aren’t likely to go anywhere. As John Kerry learned, the egalitarian internationalist impulse — of which these amendments are effects — is political poison at this point: the American people didn’t care for Kerry’s vacation homes abroad; imagine if he had had a childhood one.
Moreover, the framers’ reasons for prohibiting foreign-born presidents remain perfectly valid. Perhaps they are even stronger in post-9/11 America. Has the threat of “undue foreign influence,” as they put it, passed? No, it has probably intensified in the American people’s mind. Alexander Hamilton wrote of the “desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?” It is clear that foreign powers, as illustrated by Clinton’s White House coffees with Chinese spies and dubious Middle Eastern money sloshing through American politics, still seek an improper ascendant in our councils.
But the risk goes beyond the potential of foreign powers planting someone in the presidency or influencing a president born and raised abroad. Even a foreign-born president not subject to malign foreign influence is a risk not worth taking, given that unavoidably divided loyalties (due to an attachment to a country in which the president was born and raised, has fond memories of, family in, and so on) could make him either dangerous or ineffectual. Would an American president, born and raised in the Middle East, with extensive friends and family there, have bombed Kabul? Fought the war on terrorism aggressively in the Middle East? Invaded Iraq? Or would conflicted feelings have made him hesitant and dithering? Could he identify wholly with the American interest? The framers’ concern about divided loyalties wasn’t nativist caprice but a realistic recognition that a president needs to have an extremely deep attachment to America in order to serve it effectively in times of crisis.
Why are the eligibility requirements for the presidency devised more strictly than they are for other offices? Because it is much more important than other offices. The founders wanted to be certain that the most powerful official in government — the official with the fewest restraints on him in time of crisis — had complete identification with the United States.
Disallowing foreign-born presidents was an obvious proposition to the delegates at the Constitutional Convention. The importance of the safeguard was so obvious to them it was barely even discussed, which is why it is difficult to find very much on what they actually said about it. Historians note that nobody voted against the prohibition, and nobody even felt the need to articulate much of a justification for it since it was such a clearly bad idea to everyone there. Historians do note the comment of Charles Pinckney, a constitutional delegate from South Carolina. He warned that what had happened in Poland fifteen years before the convention — Poland was carved up after Austria, Prussia, and Russia planted a puppet in its election — might happen in America: “we shall soon have the scenes of the Polish Diets and elections reenacted here, and in not many years the fate of Poland may be that of United America.” And they also note John Jay’s comment that it would be “wise and seasonable to provide a strong check to the admission of Foreigners into the administration of our national Government; and to declare expressly that the Commander in chief of the army shall not be given to, nor devolve on, any but a natural born citizen.”
It is not hard to imagine the delegates of the Constitutional Convention endorsing the people’s use of their amendment power to secure marriage from judicial despots. It is impossible to imagine them endorsing it to expose the presidency to foreign ones.
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