Constitution 101 for Presidents
“Isn’t your Constitution just a myth?” a German Fulbright scholar asked me during my keynote address. I was taken aback, then responded: “You mean as compared to the national myths that some other countries have embraced?” He looked dumbfounded, while the audience murmured knowingly. Yet his point remained: Americans may revere the U.S. Constitution, but are they actually governed by it?
As the presidential campaign heats up, our candidates need a refresher course in the U.S. Constitution to counter our German visitor’s assessment. After all, the president’s job description is to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Meaning, it’s not just what a president does, it’s how the president does it. Process matters; that’s what it means to live under a constitutional republic.
So here are a few tips for our current candidates — Republicans first, in order of polling, and then Democrats:
1. Mr. Trump: No matter how good a negotiator you are, the Constitution limits what you can do. That’s what makes you a president and not a dictator. Let’s say you get the very best deal you can with a foreign power, Congress still has to play along. Whether you use an executive agreement or a treaty, Congress can cause a lot of trouble (e.g., Iran). That’s a good thing, if you truly believe in the Constitution and separation of powers. Not so much if you want to close a fast business deal. Read Article II carefully before you decide you really want to be president — not just follow in the footsteps of your avowed hero, Flo Ziegfeld.
2. Ms. Fiorina: Your beloved father was a celebrated federal judge, so you may have a constitutional head start over some of the other candidates. But you dropped out of law school to pursue a business career. No harm there, but unfortunately some business people see the law as something to “get around” rather than follow. But as president, your job description is to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” That is your Job 1. Congress makes the law; you don’t. So your credo of leading from the outside makes absolutely no difference if you can’t convince Congress to go along. You thought the trustees of Hewlett-Packard were dysfunctional — try 535 of them!
3. Dr. Carson: You believe in absolute truths, which is how you saved lives as a neurosurgeon. And while such beliefs may also guide your personal faith, they cannot solely determine your actions as president. As you have been reminded, Article VI clearly states “no religious test” for public office, one of the few civil liberties protected in the original Constitution before the Bill of Rights was added. A Jewish man from Philadelphia urged the framers to include that provision, at a time when only Christians could hold office. Therefore, a person’s religious faith, or lack thereof, cannot be used to deny them a job in the Carson administration, much less a job elected by the American people.
4. Sec. Clinton and Sen. Sanders: It worries me that Democrats tend not to engage Republicans on constitutional issues. The Constitution belongs to everybody, not just one political class or group of people. Just as President Obama realized that he could not allow the wearing of a flag pin to become a political issue, Democrats need to be full-throated in defense of their vision of the Constitution. Otherwise, we risk marginalizing the oldest written constitution of a nation still in operation. And then my German friend may be right.
From the very beginning of our nation, our most enduring constitutional principles sprang from conflict and dissent. The Federalists, who supported the Constitution as written in 1787, thought a Bill of Rights was unnecessary; the Anti-Federalists believed it was essential. Thus, the Bill of Rights, which most Americans see as the keystone of our Constitution, came from those who initially opposed the Constitution, not those who supported it.
And in the aftermath of the Civil War came a second founding of the nation, “a new birth of freedom,” in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Taken together, these amendments freed enslaved people, made them citizens, gave black men the vote, and added the principle of equality before the law. Yet more than a century later that ideal was still not reality for the descendants of slaves, and a massive civil uprising helped bring about “a more perfect union.” The struggle to achieve such a union continues today — for many Americans, from all walks of life.
But if our presidential candidates don’t take seriously their obligation to the Constitution, how are we to expect American citizens to do otherwise? More than 200 years ago, Alexander Hamilton reminded us, in the first of the Federalist papers:
It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political institutions on accident and force.
To fulfill that destiny, presidential candidates should place our Constitution front and center of this campaign. Let the debate begin.