By Dylan Matthews
There are times when Barack Obama’s belief that presenting the facts and talking about them in a reasoned manner will lead his opponents to come around is charming, and indeed a compelling political tool. Looking like you’re taking the high road sometimes helps you out. But then there are the times where it just makes it seem like he doesn’t know who or what he’s up against.
Obama’s release of his long-form birth certificate, and subsequent comments to the press on the matter, fall strictly into the latter category. The most notable feature of people who deny that Obama was born in America is that they’re insane. The fact that Obama had already released a birth certificate, and that the Honolulu Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin, the city’s two major newspapers, both printed notices of his birth did not persuade birthers. Why should another birth certificate?
Nor will the release of the birth certificate weaken prominent right-wingers who have been milking the issue for political gain. Donald Trump spent weeks touting the issue before the release, and immediately got more press afterwards. Whether Trump actually believes this crap is basically irrelevant. He knows a wide swath of the Republican base does, and that if he runs for president, he’ll need their votes. Now that Obama has effectively dubbed him the leader of the birthers, he has that demographic in the bag. Even if he’s not running and just wants attention, Obama gave him that too.
Listing all the reasons this issue is depressing would take too long. But one of them, highlighted this past week by The Economist’s Will Wilkinson, is that this shouldn’t matter. Obama, of course, was born in Honolulu, not Kenya. But so what if the birthers were right? How would that have affected his suitability for the presidency? He still would have served as a state and US Senator, a law professor, and so forth. He still would have taken the actions he has taken as president. How would his having been born in Kenya change our evaluation of his presidency in any way?
Of course, it would make his presidency unconstitutional, as America does not allow foreign-born citizens to serve as president. As Wilkinson notes, this is a harmful anachronism. Politicians in early America were somewhat understandably concerned with the potential for foreign forces to meddle in our politics. For example, the “Titles of Nobility Amendment”, which would have stripped the citizenship of any American who accepted a foreign title of nobility, passed Congress and was ratified by twelve states in the 1810s.
The worst thing that would have happened if that amendment passed, though, would be that a few Americans wouldn’t get to put “KBE” after their names. The nautral-born citizen provision has already denied us some potentially great presidents. Take Carl Schurz, who fled Germany after helping participated in the failed revolution there in 1848, and proceeded to become a Union general in the Civil War, a Senator, and a famously anti-corruption Secretary of the Interior. But he could never be president. One can think of examples today. Say what you will about Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the fact that the popular governor of the most populous state in the union couldn’t run for president in 2008 was absurd. Then-Governor of Michigan Jennifer Granholm would have easily been on Obama’s shortlist for VP in 2008, but she spent the first four years of her life in Vancouver, so no dice.
At times, it seemed like there was momentum to finally rid the Constitution of this provision. In 2004, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced a constitutional amendment eliminating the natural-born citizen requirement, mostly as a way of enabling Schwarzenegger to run. But today, a conservative legislator like Hatch wouldn’t be caught dead alienating birthers with an amendment like that.
That’s the real tragedy of birtherism. It has effectively closed the public debate over whether we should even care if our presidents were born in America. It has helped entrench one of the Constitution’s most outdated provisions—and a fairly discriminatory one at that, and it shows no sign of going away.