What does it take to become the President of the United States? Folklore praises Washington’s honesty, Kennedy’s youth and passion inspired a new generation of voters, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership saw him elected four, yes four, times. So what do our current crop of presidential hopefuls have that make them fit to be our next Commander in Chief?
Well let’s not get ahead of ourselves; nowadays, conversations over presidential qualifications more often imply a constitutional question rather than any lofty aspirations or high rhetoric. That’s right, whether or not the candidate is actually an American citizen has, once again, taken center stage.
So what does the Constitution say about presidential eligibility? Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 of the United States Constitution states that,
“[n]o Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”
It’s the seemingly straightforward natural born citizen clause that has caused recent argument. Like most legal questions, however, simple appearances often shroud devilish questions; and this clause is no exception.
The two primary rationales behind granting citizenship are jus soli and jus sanguinis: by right of land and by blood. These are simple enough; but what about situations when the two conflict, as in the cases of many past and present presidential candidates? Well, let’s take a case-by-case look at some of the situations of our sitting President and presidential hopefuls (at one time or another) Marco Rubio, John McCain, and Ted Cruz.
First, let’s take a look at candidates born in the United States to at least one noncitizen parent. In this regard President Barack Obama and Marco Rubio find themselves in the same boat, no doubt to their mutual chagrin. Fortunately, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) settles the matter a bit by granting citizenship to all people born on American soil—with exemptions for foreign diplomats. This is good news for Rubio. While also great for Obama, he would likely be more pleased if one in five Americans didn’t erroneously believe that he was foreign born.
The situations for Ted Cruz and John McCain, by contrast, are still an unsettled matter. After all, the Fourteenth Amendment doesn’t provide much cover for Canadian-born Cruz, and it only further complicates the situation of John McCain, who was born in the then U.S. controlled Panama Zone. However, while the Constitution may be the supreme law of the land, it is not the only collection of laws on the books.
John McCain, in particular, would be well-served by earlier laws in our history that grant U.S. citizenship to those born in U.S. controlled territories. He would also be the obvious beneficiary of any jus sanguinis reading of the Constitution as he is the son of two U.S. citizens. By current legal standards McCain is a citizen, and one that almost certainly meets the “naturally born” standards. Not only that, but his status as a war hero and years spent as a POW may well shame anyone who argues otherwise—well, almost anyone.
Where citizenship gets really complicated is in the final case of Senator Cruz. Being born in Canada to a Cuban father and American mother, his situation is much less certain. Shortly before the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, laws were passed making those born to an American father citizens—in case you’re wondering, the law extending the same benefits to American mothers wasn’t passed until 1930. By these standards, Cruz is certainly an American citizen. The problem is that mere citizenship is a lower standard than is set by the naturally-born citizen clause required to become president.
So what happens to Cruz when he’s put up against this higher standard? To be honest, we don’t really know for sure. To her consistent credit, Orly Taitz doesn’t believe that Cruz meets the requirements to be president—or Rubio, for that matter. Legally, however, many legal scholars predict that he would qualify; although not everyone agrees with their reasoning. Either way, short of a successful Cruz bid and Supreme Court challenge, we’ll likely be left wondering.
So what does this all mean? If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Cruz being eligible, which means that we should all be focusing on how our presidential hopefuls have previously governed in office and their visions for the future of the country rather than where they’re from. That might be too much optimism but, hey, I’m a dreamer.
Finally, no matter who you support in the upcoming election be sure to apprise yourself of the issues and be sure to vote.