Republicans love the Constitution — except for the parts they hate
If you are running for office as a Republican today, you have to mention your reverence for the Constitution at least as much as you mention your love for Ronald Reagan.
The Second Amendment — every word should be taken literally because it was literally ordained by God! The First Amendment protects my right to discriminate against gay people! Neither the Constitution nor the Bible contains the word “Obamacare”!
But Republican politicians have a few glaring blind spots when it comes to the Constitution. One of those is the 14th Amendment, a pillar of our inclusive democracy, a key component of which Republican presidential candidates are now asking us to ignore or change.
In its infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the descendants of enslaved people were disqualified from U.S. citizenship. After we fought a civil war, the U.S. ratified the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1868, which overturned Dred Scott in its opening lines, declaring, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
During the congressional debate over the 14th Amendment, both its supporters and detractors recognized that this birthright citizenship clause would apply to everyone born on U.S. soil, not just the descendants of slaves. In 1898, the Supreme Court ruled that even after the passage of the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act, the U.S. could not deny citizenship to Wong Kim Ark, a California-born son of Chinese immigrants, because the 14th Amendment guaranteed him citizenship.
Yet, anti-immigrant activists and their allies in the GOP are now fighting against this most American of constitutional principles.
In an immigration plan released this week, GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump called for ending birthright citizenship. No matter that he didn’t say how he would do that (while most people acknowledge that it would take a constitutional amendment to change the policy, some claim it was never included in the 14th Amendment in the first place). His Republican rivals started jumping to join him. Scott Walker told reporters that he “absolutely” wanted to change the Constitution’s definition of citizenship, adding, paradoxically, that “to me it’s about enforcing the laws in this country.” Ben Carson said it “doesn’t make any sense” to allow “anchor babies.” Bobby Jindal joined the fray. So did Lindsey Graham. Rand Paul and Rick Santorum had already expressed their support for undoing the citizenship provision, with Paul sponsoring a constitutional amendment to do so and Santorum saying the 14th Amendment doesn’t even say what it says.
Jeb Bush has been getting unearned credit for acknowledging that birthright citizenship is a “constitutional right” that we shouldn’t “take away” — just a few days after implying that if he had a “magic wand” to change the Constitution he would use it to do just that. Similarly, John Kasich has renounced his previous support for repealing birthright citizenship, but now says he doesn’t want to “dwell on it.” Carly Fiorina’s and Rick Perry’s passionate defense of the 14th Amendment is that it would take too much work to change it. This is what now passes for moderation. What ever happened to defending basic constitutional rights?
The Republican presidential contenders’ rush to badmouth a basic constitutional right — in an apparent attempt to appeal to their supposedly Constitution-loving far-right base — speaks volumes about what they really mean when they talk about constitutionalism. They use their pocket Constitutions for the parts that come in handy. The rest of it? Not so much.
Michael Keegan is president of People For the American Way. A longtime activist and business leader, Keegan is a founding national board member of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). He serves on the board of the Los Angeles Public Library and as a trustee of the Muriel Pollia Foundation.