The title of Hillary Clinton’s memoir of her unsuccessful campaign for the presidency, What Happened, has no question mark at the end, although many people around the world might reflexively add one. Clinton’s defeat surprised—stunned—many, including, as is clear from her recollections, Clinton herself. The majority of polls of the likely electorate indicated that she was headed for a nearly certain win, although her prolonged struggle for the Democratic nomination against a wild-haired, septuagenarian socialist from Vermont was a blinking sign of danger ahead. A significant number of voters were in no mood to play it safe, and the safe choice was what Clinton far too confidently offered in both the primaries and the general election.
It was not only the polls that led observers astray; their instincts did as well. Many, within and outside the country, had trouble imagining that the American people would elect to the most important position in the land, perhaps in the world, a man who had never been elected or appointed to public office, nor sworn an oath of allegiance to the United States as a member of the armed services, nor shown any serious interest in public service. From the time candidates can be said to have openly campaigned for the office, those aspiring to the presidency have touted their possession of these extraconstitutionally mandated qualifications, and all presidents before Donald Trump had at least one of them. They are “extraconstitutional” because none is a requirement for the presidency. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution lists only three qualifications relevant to modern times: that the president be a “natural born citizen,” at least thirty-five years old, and a resident “within the United States” for fourteen years.
The historian Jack Rakove observed that the American presidency “posed the single most perplexing problem of institutional design” that the framers faced. “The task of establishing a national executive on republican principles,” Rakove says, “puzzled” them.1 What kind of executive would be suitable in post-Revolutionary America? What type and amount of power should the Constitution give to a person who, in the absence of a vigilant citizenry, might begin to act like a king? And what if the people came to love the president so much that they did not mind—perhaps even welcomed—deviations from republican principles?
Despite these reservations, it was understood by the framers that the president had to be a powerful figure who could symbolize the nation. Just what that meant has been contested. Rakove’s notion that the substance of the presidency had to be “discovered” and “invented” seems exactly right; and the process of discovery has continued, with varying results, over the years.
While adhering to the Constitution’s minimal qualifications, American voters have always had the…
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