The New York Post reported Friday that former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) “has been talking openly about working on getting the constitutional rules changed so he can run for president in 2016.” He’s unlikely to succeed. A presidential bid by the Austrian-born Governator runs afoul of the Constitution’s requirement that “[n]o person except a natural born citizen . . . shall be eligible to the office of President,” and the Constitution is virtually impossible to amend. As the former leader of America’s most populous state, Schwarzenegger’s likely already served in the highest job he can ever achieve.
And this is too bad.
The “natural born citizen” language in the Constitution is a relic of Eighteenth Century concerns that have little relevance to modern America. As Alexander Hamilton explained in the Federalist Papers, this requirement was placed in the Constitution to ward off “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils” by “raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.” More than two centuries after Hamilton wrote these words, however, it’s difficult to imagine a foreign power undertaking such a task.
Before winning the presidency, a foreign sleeper agent would need to move to the United States, assimilate himself or herself so deeply into our culture that they would be viewed as an acceptable leader by a majority of Americans, serve as a senator, governor or other high-ranking official, win a primary against co-partisans eager to discredit their candidacy and then convince the nation to place them in the White House — all without once dropping any hints that they might be working for a foreign power. This kind of plot would have made for a riveting Tom Clancy novel, but it’s hard to imagine a real-world foreign power undertaking such a Rube Goldberg operation. And even if they did, the Constitution has another built-in safeguard against sleeper candidates.
In addition to requiring the President of the United States to be a citizen at birth, the Constitution also requires him or her to have “been fourteen Years a resident within the United States.” Thus in addition to everything else a foreign sleeper agent would need to do in order to become president, they would also need to set up residence in the United States and then wait for nearly a decade and a half before they would even be eligible for the presidency. That’s one heck of an time investment for a foreign power seeking to infiltrate the United States, and all for the sake of a plot that depends upon the American people electing a sleeper agent to a job that only 43 people have every held.
The implication of the Constitution’s bar on foreign-born presidents is that there is some reason to doubt the loyalty of Gov. Schwarzenegger (or, for that matter, of Canadian-born former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D)). But this is paranoia akin to birtherism. While Schwarzenegger’s made his share of questionable decisions while in office, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the future California governor moved to the United States 45 years ago as part of an elaborate Austrian plot to seize the American presidency. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an American, and he is no less American than George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
Beyond fears of foreign infiltrators, there is another explanation for the Constitution’s natural-born citizenship requirement. As Yale’s Akhil Amar explains, European monarchies often imported high-born citizens of other nations to serve as their new king or queen — think of Willem III of Orange, the Dutch prince invited to rule Britain during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Indeed, a prominent early American politician named Nathaniel Gorham reportedly wrote to Prince Henry of Prussia to inquire whether Henry would consider becoming King of America months before the Constitution was drafted. The natural-born citizen requirement, according to Amar, “reject[ed] all vestiges of monarchy.” It ensured that no foreign royal would ever set foot on American shores expecting to be crowned king.
Today, however, this fear of a foreign-born monarch claiming sovereignty over the United States is even more absurd than the idea that Arnold Schwarzenegger is an Austrian sleeper agent. If Schwarzenegger were elected to the White House, he would serve a four year term just like any other president. There is no reasonable course of hypothetical future events that would lead to him or anyone else being declared king.
None of this, of course, should be read as an endorsement of a Schwarzenegger (or a Granholm) presidency. To the contrary, it is merely an acknowledgement that constitutional limits that made perfect sense in 1787 can have little relevance to a modern society. If Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to be President of the United States, he will need to win a major party nomination in an America where moderate Republicans are largely without a political home, and then he will need to convince the nation that he is worthy of its highest office. These are virtually insurmountable tasks even under the best of circumstances. There’s no reason to impugn Schwarzenegger’s loyalty in the process.