On January 20th, a new president will swear to "preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution. We hope Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton understand it in a reasonably sophisticated way. But do they? Responding to a question from Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) about his understanding of Article 1 (the Congress), Trump's reply was that: "I am a constitutionalist. I am going to abide by the Constitution whether it's number 1, number 2, number 12, number 9." Yet there are only seven articles. Trump has told the NRA that Hillary Clinton will "abolish the Second Amendment." Only another amendment can do that, and the amendment process delegates no power to the president. For her part, Clinton will put her husband in charge of "revitalizing the economy." What power should a president's spouse, who is neither elected nor confirmed by the Senate, have? How might such a role conflict with the authority of the Secretary of Commerce, who will take an oath to the Constitution? Has Clinton thought this through, constitutionally?
In primary and presidential debates, questions about character and policies are endless. They help us judge who the candidates are and what they might do. But questions about how they understand Article II (the executive), whether they have much grasp of Constitutional history, and what they conclude from the triumphs and tragedies of their predecessors have not been asked. No one gets to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs without understanding the oath and its history of subordinating military to civilian authority, yet, it seems one can become Commander in Chief without even reading the Constitution.
There is a way to address this problem, but it is not another presidential debate. Debates generate more heat than light. They are a platform for scripted statements. We need instead a structured conversation, more like an oral examination. We don't need candidates to challenge each other, to trot out positions or attacks; we need them to demonstrate they understand their Constitutional responsibilities.
Such an event could be conducted by a small panel -- not of media personalities but of historians and Constitutional scholars. It could be hosted by the National Constitution Center, which is chartered by Congress to educate us about the Constitution, on a non-partisan basis.
The flavor of such an evening can be glimpsed by a few sample questions. These would seem reasonable to ask of a person who aspires to lead the nation:
• George Washington was the Father of Our Country. Thomas Jefferson gave us the Declaration of Independence. Other than these two towering figures, what other Founding Father do you admire and why?
• In the Federalist Papers, James Madison described the danger of the tyranny of the majority. What did he mean, and how does the Constitution address this problem?
• In George Washington's Farewell Address, he warned about the dangers of factions - groups more interested in their own ends than the good of the nation as a whole. Is that worry still valid and, if so, how would you deal with it?
• There are two contrasting arguments about how we should look at the Constitution. Some argue it is a "living Constitution," to be interpreted and changed as the needs of "We, the People" change. Others argue we should cleave to the original meaning of its words. As president, which view would you take, and why?
• How do you interpret the Tenth Amendment, and how will that shape your presidency?
While such questions may seem academic, they are at the heart of our republican government. They demand an in-depth constitutional and historical understanding. Addressing them with sound bites would be obvious and revealing. Candidates who neither understand the questions nor have thoughtful responses risk damaging what they would take an oath to uphold.
Besides the obvious advantage of such an event in giving us a better grasp of each candidate's readiness to take that oath, there are at least two others benefits. Preparing for such an event would require study that may well enlighten the candidates. The broadcast also would educate the nation, an important contribution to responsible citizenship.
Our first president, George Washington, chaired the Federal Convention that produced the Constitution. Our third president, James Madison, spoke two hundred times at the convention and is regarded by some as the "father of the Constitution." John Adams, our second president said that the Constitution "is a standard, a pillar, and a bond when it is understood, approved, and beloved. But without this intelligence and attachment, it might as well be a kite or balloon flying in the air." We need to know that the next president is ready to strengthen that pillar and bond.