Some talented and ambitious American political figures have risen to high office but been barred from the highest one. Among them: Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and former Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.
What they all have in common is that they are immigrants. The Constitution says you cannot qualify to be president unless you are at least 35 years old, have lived in the United States for 14 years or more and are "a natural born citizen."
So where does that leave Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas?
He was born in Canada in 1970, and his father was a Cuban refugee. Under Canadian law, his place of birth made him a citizen of Canada.
But Cruz's mother was an American, and that automatically conferred American citizenship on him as well. Or, as he says, somewhat grandiloquently, "I have never breathed a breath of air on this planet when I was not a U.S. citizen." (He also formally surrendered his Canadian citizenship.)
The peculiar wording of the constitutional provision, though, leaves Donald Trump and others room for doubt. "Natural born," in their view, could be interpreted to mean "born on U.S. soil." And the Supreme Court has never ruled on the matter.
"Is he a natural born citizen?" Trump asked at one rally. "Honestly, we don't know." The tycoon warns that if Cruz captures the Republican nomination, "he's going to be immediately sued by the Democrats because they're saying he was born in Canada, he's not allowed to run for president." Even John McCain, whose eligibility was questioned because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone, has said the Cruz case is "worth looking into."
Cruz and his supporters shouldn't lose any sleep over it. Most constitutional scholars agree that the term excludes only those who did not have American citizenship at birth. Georgetown University law professors Neal Katyal and Paul Clement have written, "All the sources routinely used to interpret the Constitution confirm that the phrase 'natural born citizen' has a specific meaning: namely, someone who was a U.S. citizen at birth with no need to go through a naturalization proceeding at some later time."
That's in keeping with the reasons for the requirement. The framers weren't creating arbitrary barriers for the fun of it. Their goal was to deny the office to anyone whose loyalty was to another country, while deterring foreign governments from interfering in our presidential elections. Neither concern applies in the case of a U.S. citizen who happens to have been born abroad.
Even if Trump had a point, the courts would not be likely to consider it. It's hard to imagine that if Cruz were elected, the Supreme Court would nullify the decision of the voters by ruling him ineligible.
It's the sort of issue the judiciary typically avoids. "The federal courts have repeatedly refused to allow voters to bring lawsuits disqualifying presidential candidates on the basis of the 'natural born citizen' clause because voters don't have the proper 'standing' — their alleged injury is too generalized to justify a court order of relief," Fordham University law professor Thomas Lee wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
It's safe to say that many voters will think of good reasons to vote for someone other than Cruz. His eligibility is not one of them.