Friday, October 12, 2007

"A stain on democracy"

Meanwhile, away from the news cycle:

Political analyst Larry Sabato, the academician/author/quotemeister, contends in a provocative new book that the U.S. Constitution is a brilliant yet somewhat "archaic" document in dire need of an update. He says that certain provisions should be revised or even overhauled, in order to address “the new demands of a very different country than the one that existed in the founders' world.”

He pitched his 23 proposals last week at the National Constitution Center – I moderated the panel, which also featured Hofstra University law professor Eric Lane and International Herald Tribune executive editor Michael Oreskes, co-authors of a new book that says the Constitution is sufficiently flexible as it is – and I recall sounding skeptical about the prospects for radical change. (The forum is slated for broadcast on C-Span2 this weekend, at 7 a.m. Sunday and again at 7 p.m.)

Sabato, based at the University of Virginia, is calling for a new constitutional convention, and tossing out all kinds of ideas: changing the composition of the Senate to give greater representation to the most populous states; slapping term limits on all members of the House and Senate; eliminating lifetime tenure for federal judges; giving the president a single six-year term, with an option to seek two additional years in a national referendum; a new provision requiring that all able-bodied young Americans devote two years to national service; and many more.

I suspect that he knows a constitutional convention would be a long shot, and that he is really most interested in getting people to think anew about a document that is widely taken for granted.

At least one proposal, however, seems particularly attractive (and perhaps achievable, if only by legislation): Dropping the requirement that only “natural born citizens” can serve in the presidency. Sabato thinks the job should also be open to naturalized Americans who have been citizens for 20 years. A number of legal scholars and members of Congress concur; John Yinger of Syracuse University, testifying on Capitol Hill three years ago, in support of a reform bill that went nowhere, contended that the constitutional provision that bars the presidency to all foreign-born citizens is “an extreme form of profiling.”

Sabato argues in his book (and argued on the panel as well) that this constitutional provision “is a stain upon our democracy” that currently disqualifies 14.4 million American citizens, including Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan. He points out that the provision was enacted at a time when the signers feared the prospect of a foreign monarch coming to these shores, perhaps at the invitation of conniving politicians in Philadelphia; rumors persisted that the Prussian brother of Frederick the Great, and the second son of British King George III, had received various overtures.

Sabato writes: “Fundamental to our national self-image is a belief that here in the United States, however humble one’s origins, anyone can rise to the highest office in the land. Striking the prohibition on non-native-born citizens will be a powerful symbol if America’s rising inclusiveness and equality in the 21st century.” He and other reformers think that 20-year naturalized citizens should be free to run for president, thereby leaving it up to the voters to decide whether they feel comfortable about electing somebody not born on American soil.

But the prospects for reform are dim, because the issue is too politically sensitive. In the aftermath of 9/11, many Americans are instinctively more fearful of foreign influence; in a national poll that Sabato commissioned for his book, 68 percent of respondents opposed the idea of a “foreign-born president.”

(Interestingly, one presidential candidate in the recent past was foreign-born. George Romney, father of current candidate Mitt Romney, ran for the GOP nomination in 1968, even though he had been born in Mexico, where his parents were Mormon missionaries. If he had triumphed during the primaries, the constitutional prohibition would have been front and center.)

It’s also noteworthy that Schwarzenegger, arguably one of the most popular and successful Republicans on the national scene, is nevertheless barred from seeking higher office due to his birth in Austria. Indeed, he was in the front row of the audience, at a GOP presidential debate last May, when the current candidates were asked whether they’d be willing to knock out that constitutional provision. Eight of nine said no – including Mitt Romney (“I’ll give it some thought, but probably not”). That kind of response must have made Arnold proud to be an American.