You may have heard that Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is facing a question or two about his birthplace. Cruz is running for president, but he was born in Canada.
Some legal experts think Cruz’s foreign birth disqualifies him from occupying the White House. The Constitution says the president must be a “natural born citizen,” the argument goes, and Cruz doesn’t meet that standard.
For the record, I think those critics are wrong. Cruz’s mother was an American citizen, which made Cruz an American at birth (he was also a Canadian citizen, but he’s renounced that). Good enough for me.
But is it too much to ask that Cruz and all of his colleagues in both parties use this dispute to adjust their own thinking about the nation’s founding document?
You can’t listen to a politician speak without hearing a paean to the wisdom of the U.S. Constitution and the wisdom of the founders. The Constitution means what it says, we’re told, and must always be followed.
Except … it isn’t always clear what the Constitution actually says. The document is full of loopholes, weird phrases, contradictions and undefined terms.
“Natural born citizen” is the least of it. Congress can extend copyrights and patents to authors and inventors for a “limited time.” What does that mean? Congress declares war. Can the United States engage in hostilities without such a declaration? Apparently, the answer is yes.
Kansas City’s earnings tax may have run afoul of something called the dormant commerce clause. The Constitution is so confusing, it seems, that some parts are sleeping. Let’s not even start on the Bill of Rights, which includes doozies like “well-regulated” militia and “cruel or unusual punishments.”
Heck, we argue over the Constitution’s first three words — we, the people. Does that mean the founding blueprint is an agreement among individuals, or do the states play a role? That dispute is as old as the republic.
The only thing certain about the Constitution is that someone is always shredding it —almost always someone from the other political party.
Democrats thought George W. Bush acted like a king. Republicans are certain of Barack Obama’s constitutional perfidy.
But the Cruz episode helps us understand the founders’ genius. They created a document that was purposely vague, allowing for arguments and disagreements on all sides.
They knew future Americans would dispute words and meanings, and the limits of government power, and individual rights. Those disagreements would keep the people involved in the country’s founding document, they believed, and therefore in their nation.
Arguments began before the Constitution was even adopted, of course. Opponents savaged the blueprint as a mistake-filled threat to freedom.
“A faultless plan was not to be expected,” James Madison wrote in reply.
“Keep in mind,” he drily added, “that they themselves also are but men, and ought not to assume an infallibility in rejudging the fallible opinions of others.”
Sounds like great advice this election year, for all of us. Maybe Ted Cruz understands that now.