McCain, Schwarzenegger, and the Birth Question

The subject of John McCain’s place of birth—he was born on a military base in the Panama Canal Zone, where his parents were stationed in 1936—is back on the table now that he’s got the GOP nomination locked down.

The “debate,” if you can call it that, turns on the question of what the founders meant when they wrote in the Constitution that any American president must be a “natural born citizen.” Some people believe it would be absurd for Americans born abroad to military parents to be ineligible for the presidency. But others … well, today’s New York Times piece doesn’t quote a single person opposed to the idea. Which suggests to me that McCain won’t have much of a problem. (It’s unclear who would have standing to sue, other than Obama himself.)

But that doesn’t mean Republicans shouldn’t clear this up once and for all. Lawmakers advanced legislation in 2004 that would make it legal for children born abroad to American citizens to run for president, but it never passed. With McCain’s candidacy at stake (or at least at hand), now would be the time to revisit the issue.

The reason, of course, is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ever since he was elected governor of California, supporters have pushed for a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for president. Petitions have circulated. Even former President George H.W. Bush said with respect to the governor’s presidential hopes, “don’t bet against Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Republicans could use the relatively simple issue of McCain’s eligibility to nudge discussion toward a larger overhaul, which could one day clear the way for Schwarzenegger.

The prospect of President Schwarzenegger has so far been limited to the fictional realm . ( Update 6:39 p.m.: How could we forget Demolition Man ?) But—and yes, this counts as a crackpot theory—imagine a scenario in which Barack Obama wins the presidency, and the Republicans are scrambling for a challenger in 2012. Romney is still around, but people remember that he lost in 2008 despite being the best-funded of the bunch. Giuliani could make a comeback, but he won’t have any more governing experience in four years than he does now. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, is the complete package: He enjoys wild popularity, he can compete with Obama for moderates, he could take California, he’s married to a Kennedy, and he has a life story that, like Obama’s, is the American dream. He would be the GOP’s answer to Obama.

But none of this would matter unless Republicans started pushing to tweak the Constitution—and soon. The problem is, GOP leaders don’t want to raise doubts about McCain’s eligibility, no matter how minor, so it’s unlikely they’ll go out of their way to bring it up. They’ll just have to wait till after the election.