The meaning of the Ted Cruz 'birther' talk

Presidential candidate Ted Cruz doesn’t seem to have a network of legislative and political allies working to delegitimize claims that he was not born in the US. 

Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz greets a supporter after signing a copy of his book at a campaign event at King's Pointe Waterpark and Resort in Storm Lake, Iowa, on Wednesday.

Is Ted Cruz a natural-born citizen of the United States and thus eligible to run for president?

The answer to that question is almost certainly “yes.” Yet in recent days, political critics and rivals of the Texan White House hopeful have continued to charge that may not be the case, or say they don’t know, or otherwise carefully raise the Cruz “birther” issue.

This continued murmuring may not say something about Senator Cruz himself, but rather be more about the nature of high-level campaigning in today’s politically polarized and media-saturated environment.

First, the details: Cruz was born in Alberta, Canada, to an American mother and a Cuban father. He renounced any claim to Canadian citizenship in 2014.

The Constitution only says that presidents must be “natural born” citizens, without further definitions. Subsequent laws and court decisions have held that children born abroad to a US parent are indeed citizens. Federal courts have never ruled whether foreign-born citizens are “natural,” leaving an unresolved detail that could well draw a court challenge. But many constitutional experts are pretty sure how that would turn out.

“An individual born to a U.S. citizen parent – whether in California or Canada or the Canal Zone – is a U.S. citizen from birth and is fully eligible to serve as President if the people so choose,” write former Solicitor General Paul Clement and former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal in a 2015 Harvard Law Review article.

Yet questions about Cruz’s eligibility for office persist. Some are expressed directly: Conservative pundit Ann Coulter on Wednesday said it is "absolutely false" that Cruz is a natural-born citizen. Others are oblique. Rival Sen. Rand Paul on Wednesday joked that Cruz is eligible to be prime minister of Canada. Still others are cloaked in concern: Donald Trump insists that Cruz just needs to go to court and get some kind of judgment to clear up questions about his fitness for office.

“I’m doing this for the good of Ted ... I like him,” Mr. Trump said when asked about the issue.

What’s the meaning of all this? For one, it shows that without doubt, Cruz is not an establishment insider.

In 2008, critics similarly charged that Sen. John McCain, who was born in the Canal Zone to US parents, might not be eligible for the White House. In response, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution that Senator McCain was indeed a US citizen.

Nobody in today’s Senate is proposing a similar legislative “attaboy” for Cruz. Unlike McCain, he’s not well liked by his colleagues, due in part to his key role in shutting down the government in 2013. McCain has called Cruz a “wacko bird,” and in an Arizona TV interview this week, he made a point of keeping the Cruz birther issue alive, despite having faced a similar situation himself.

“It’s worth looking into” whether Cruz is a citizen, McCain said.

In sum, Cruz doesn’t seem to have a network of legislative and political allies working to delegitimize these questions.

Second, all this shows Cruz is rising. Why is it coming up now? Because the Texas senator has grabbed second place behind Trump in national GOP polls and looks well positioned to win the Iowa caucuses and perhaps slingshot higher from there.

Finally, the Cruz birther questions show how provocative and personal issues persist in media political coverage, to the (possible) exclusion of more substantive discussion. Admittedly, in a primary election where all candidates are conservative, the actual policy differences can be minimal. But Cruz has a tax plan that would flatten income tax rates while adding a business tax that acts much like a value-added tax.

That would be a huge change affecting everyone who buys anything in the US. But it’s not getting much airtime on Fox, or MSNBC.

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