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THE GOVERNOR OF the nation's largest state was reelected in a landslide in November, even though his Republican Party is a minority in California. He works with Democrats in a way that offers the rest of the country a model of much-needed bipartisanship. To kick off his second term, he has proposed the most ambitious healthcare and environmental reforms in the country, and he is also committed to a massive reconstruction of the state's infrastructure.
Yet, oddly enough, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not on the list of potential presidential candidates in 2008.
Why? Because the founders were worried in the 18th century that our fledgling nation might go the way of Poland and be overtaken by a foreign monarchy. Hence the constitutional qualifier that only "natural-born citizens" are eligible for the presidency of the United States.
In their wisdom, however, the Constitution's authors adopted a mechanism for the nation's founding document to be amended. Amendments should be undertaken sparingly, we agree, but it's a good thing that slavery was done away with and that suffrage has been expanded.
And now that we can all rest assured that no foreign monarch is going to move into the White House, it's long past due for this nation of immigrants to amend the Constitution to allow naturalized Americans to aspire to the presidency. This is precisely the type of defining issue — what it means to be American — that the amendment process was designed to address.
Supporting Schwarzenegger for governor (we did) does not necessarily lead to supporting him for president (we don't — yet). But why should Californians have their governor sidelined from the race? And why can't voters across the country be entrusted to decide for themselves whether the governor of California is sufficiently "American" to earn their vote? It's insulting, really.
Yes, the nation will manage without Schwarzenegger at the helm. But his situation is a reminder of this constitutional flaw. The issue is also important at a symbolic level. It isn't that there aren't enough qualified "natural-born" Americans to run for the highest office in the land, it's that there is an asterisk attached to the citizenship of many great Americans.
Think about it. Someone could come to the U.S. at the age of 2 from Britain or China or Peru, become a citizen, join the military, win a Medal of Honor, cure cancer — but that person would still not be "good enough" for the White House.
One of the exceptional qualities of this meritocratic nation of immigrants is its sense of possibility. Americans like to tell their kids that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up — including president. But for millions of patriotic Americans, the Constitution says otherwise. The idea of citizenship only as a birthright is a decidedly foreign notion. And the idea that voters cannot elect as their leader a naturalized citizen is decidedly undemocratic.
That's why California's representatives in Washington should support a constitutional amendment. If the United States is a nation of immigrants, California is a state of immigrants. And California leaders who want to hold on to the 18th century prohibition against naturalized citizens running for the presidency are not doing a very good job representing their constituents.
We asked every member of Congress representing California two questions: 1) As a Californian, do you think it's fair that our governor can't run for president because he's a naturalized citizen? And 2) Would you support a constitutional amendment to allow naturalized citizens to seek the presidency?
We have posted their answers on our website at latimes.com/opinion.
We realize there are further debates to be had about the exact terms and language of the amendment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for instance, does favor such an amendment but wants a 35-year residency requirement for naturalized citizens; Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) would require individuals to have been a citizen for a quarter of a century. But it's remarkable that 18 out of 55 members failed to get back to us on this issue altogether, three refused to comment and 11 others couldn't muster a simple "yes" or "no" answer to these fundamental questions. These include both Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Feinstein reminded us that she had serious concerns about such an amendment the last time the issue was looked at by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but that she would keep an open mind on future proposals. Boxer simply said she'd want to look at the specific language of any proposed amendment before taking a position, but she wouldn't even answer the first question regarding Schwarzenegger's predicament.
The good news is that of those who did give us straightforward answers, 14 members of the House of Representatives said they would support a constitutional amendment, while nine wouldn't. That's a start.
Plenty of members seem to feel like this is a minor issue — Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) says it is not important enough to deal with, and she'd rather see an equal rights amendment to the Constitution. Others may even feel that it is too radioactive against the backdrop of arguments over illegal immigration.
A number of representatives overlook the symbolic importance of the barrier to naturalized citizens, focusing on the fact that we already have a talented pool of people from which to choose a president. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) got the bipartisan spirit of our endeavor, saying he'd favor a constitutional amendment to allow naturalized citizens to run for president, "even those I may not support myself." We hope mere partisanship isn't driving the views of others.
In any case, we will persevere in coming months to try to keep the issue on the minds of our representatives, and maybe, as they reflect on what it means to represent this state built by immigrants, we can hear back from more of them.