Author & Speaker

El Presidente McCain?

With the Republican presidential nomination locked up, John McCain is facing spirited inquiry into a very basic question — is he eligible under the Constitution to be president?
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The sweaty man-hug with President Bush — who could resist this shot?
The problem for McCain is that he was born in the Panama Canal Zone, at an American military installation. Yet the Constitution states clearly — well, sort of clearly — that the president must be a “natural born Citizen.” So, what does “natural born Citizen” mean?
(The Framers created a loophole for themselves, also allowing presidents who were citizens of the United States at the time the Constitution was adopted (1788). Six of the delegates at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, after all, were immigrants. Even though McCain is the oldest candidate in this year’s race, he’s not old enough to qualify for that loophole.)
It turns out that, in Mr. McCain’s case, there is no indisputable answer to the question. The term “natural born Citizen” has never been definitively interpreted by a court. Law! You have to love it!
The Framers of the Constitution managed to be clear when they restricted who could run for the Senate or the House of Representatives. House members must have been citizens for seven years, while senators need to have been citizens for nine. Plainly, then, immigrants can be members of both bodies after they have been citizens for the necessary periods. Indeed, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had passionate debates on this point. James Wilson of Pennsylvania, a Scottish immigrant, insisted that it was mortifying to be disqualified from office in your adopted country for any period of time.
For president, though, the delegates chose this other phrase, “natural born citizens.” That certainly seems to exclude from the presidency those immigrants who acquire citizenship by naturalization. So people who were citizens of other nations before becoming U.S. citizens — like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California (Austria) and Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan (Canada) — cannot be president.
But McCain is different. He was born on a U.S. military base in a land leased by the nation for a period of time. By statute, Congress provided that all persons born in the Canal Zone (which no longer exists), and all persons born overseas to U.S. citizens, are U.S. citizens. Ah, but are they “natural born”? Quien sabe, el Presidente?
An intriguing argument that McCain is not eligible is outlined at http://muddythoughts.blogspot.com/2008/02/panmanchurian-candidate-mccain.html. But, I confess, I don’t buy it. McCain certainly is not a naturalized citizen. Whatever U.S. citizenship he has, he has had since his birth. He never went through naturalization. That’s “natural born” enough for me.
This admittedly simple-minded reasoning — and the older I get, the more I favor simple-minded reasoning — is reinforced by the practical question of how we treat those Americans who go overseas to serve our country. It seems wrong to impose any penalty on such public service, even one as unlikely to arise (for most people) as eligibility to be president.

1 Comment

  1. klkatz on March 19, 2008 at 1:34 am

    Love this post. would undoubtedly be good debate in a government classroom.
    keep up the great research

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