Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn't made a big secret of his presidential ambitions. But standing in the way is Article 2 of the United States Constitution, which states that only "natural-born" citizens may serve as president.
Since the Civil War, at least 26 proposed amendments to change that requirement have been introduced. A handful of thoughtful new proposals are now before lawmakers, and this time they ought to say yes. Credit Schwarzenegger's superstar status for the issue's resurgence. To Republicans eager to field big-tent moderates, the notion of a Schwarzenegger presidential bid is no joke.
Of course, Schwarzenegger's ambition is no reason to amend the Constitution. A far better one is that in a nation of immigrants, it's inappropriate to bar immigrants -- possibly including children born to U.S. military families stationed abroad -- from the White House.
This outdated measure was aimed at keeping out foreign monarchs, which surely is no longer a concern.
The drafters of the Constitution did the right thing by creating a long and cumbersome amendment process. Amending the Constitution is subject to approval from two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states. Only 27 amendments have cleared this gantlet, while dozens of goofball or mean-spirited ideas died merciful deaths.
Debates over amendments to ban gay marriage and flag desecration, for instance, have been the comic sideshow in this year's increasingly noir election campaign. A debate over who may be president would be an uplifting contrast.
Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held the first hearings since the 1870s on the "natural-born" requirement. The proposals raise tough questions: How long should someone be a U.S. citizen before he or she can run? Should a new amendment take effect immediately or be phased in? It makes sense to require dual citizens to renounce their other allegiance before vying for the presidency. Unless he gives up his Austrian citizenship, that would cut out Schwarzenegger. The president shouldn't have divided loyalties.
Congress is unlikely to act soon on any of these proposals. Meanwhile, a serious national debate on the issue is in order. The question is not whether naturalized Americans ought to be eligible to become president, but when and how.