The Good News: Rubio's Eligible
Conservatives are right to be deeply committed to constitutionalism and to test all government actions against the plumb line of that great charter of liberty. We would never dismiss concerns about the constitutionality of legislation or the eligibility of persons to hold office under that Constitution the way former Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed objections to the legitimacy of ObamaCare. The former Speaker looked incredulously at her questioner and said: "Are you serious?" Happily, such disdain for constitutional concerns is one reason why she is the former Speaker of the House.
Don't worry, dear readers -- be happy. The good news for us is that Sen. Marco Rubio is eligible to be elected president in 2012. And so are Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley. There's been a lot of attention devoted to the original meaning of "natural born citizen of the United States," the governing phrase from Art. II, Sec. 1 of the Constitution. Happily, The Heritage Guide to the Constitution resolves this question for us.
Clearly, says this respected source, what the Founders sought to avoid was foreign intrigue, or intriguers, becoming president. Wise Founders. (Too bad they didn't also say "Marxists need not apply.")
The Guide cites the estimable John Jay, our first Chief Justice, who during the Constitutional Convention wrote to George Washington in 1787 to urge that "a strong check [be included] to the admission of Foreigners into the administration of our national Government; and to declare expressly that the Commander in Chief of the American army shall not be given nor devolve on, any but a natural born Citizen." (Don't you love how Jay capitalizes Citizen?)
Do you have to be born within the territorial limits of the United States to be such a citizen? No, said the Founders. The Heritage Foundation's Guide shows how the First Congress in 1790 provided that "the children of citizens of the United States that may be born beyond the sea or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born." This was our first naturalization statute (1 Stat. 104). This Congress contained many Members, notably James Madison himself, who had just framed the Constitution in Philadelphia.
To provide a further check on foreign intrigue, the Founders specified that a person must have been "fourteen years a Resident within the United States." Why was that necessary?
Author David McCullough provides the answer -- although that was not his purpose-in his latest smash bestseller, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. McCullough describes John Singer Sargent, the famous American painter. Sargent had been born in Rome to American expatriate parents. Young Sargent lived in Europe and never visited the U.S. until 1876. His wealthy mother brought him to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia when he was 19 years old.
Could such an expatriate "natural born Citizen" become president? Not unless he returned to the U.S. and lived here 14 years, the Founders wisely provided. John Singer Sargent painted the powerful portrait of Theodore Roosevelt that today hangs in the White House, but he could not have run for the office himself.
The Founders were serious about American identity and the integrity of republican principles. It was an incredible blessing to us that George and Martha Washington had no children of their marriage. Washington had referred to this fact in the first draft of his Inaugural Address. There would be no danger of monarchy here, he said, because he had "no child for whom I could wish to make provision -- no family to build in greatness upon my country's ruin."
Now, consider Marco Rubio. His parents were resident aliens when he was born in 1971, seeking and soon to receive their status as naturalized U.S. citizens. Under the Fourteenth Amendment, "all persons born...in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the states wherein they reside." This "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" clause shows why Rubio is -- and, very likely, why children of illegal aliens are not -- a "natural born citizen of the United States."
We should be very careful in discussions of the Constitution to avoid the impression that we are an anti-immigrant party. To say that Rubio, Jindal, and Haley are forever barred because of a strained interpretation of the Constitution's eligibility clause would condemn conservatism to minority status for the foreseeable future. Surely, that is not what we want.
Let's remember Ronald Reagan's beautiful Farewell Address. He spoke of Vietnamese Boat People in the South China Sea.
... the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, "Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man."
Today, Marco Rubio is a freedom man. So are Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley a freedom man and woman. We should be proud to have any of these children of exiles as our president.