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Is Ted Cruz American enough?

By Eric Liu, Special to CNN
August 21, 2013 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Liu: Ted Cruz's excellent birther adventure has been a moment of absurdity, irony
  • Liu: It is a reminder that people of color are still more likely to be presumed foreign
  • He says John McCain and Mitt Romney never faced conspiracy theories on their origin
  • Liu: Maybe Cruz now will have greater empathy for those on the margins of American life

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and author of several books, including "The Gardens of Democracy" and "The Accidental Asian." He served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Clinton. Follow him on Twitter: @ericpliu

(CNN) -- Ted Cruz's excellent birther adventure has been a moment of absurdity, irony and comeuppance, for him and for many in his party.

Cruz, the freshman GOP senator from Texas and a tea party darling, has made a name for himself as an incendiary obstructionist in the usually genteel Senate. He may run for president in 2016. Which means, under the Constitution, that he has to be a "natural-born citizen."

He is indeed a natural-born citizen -- of Canada. Born in Calgary to an American mother, Cruz learned that he has unwittingly held Canadian citizenship all his life. What was in doubt, thanks to a few birthers from the right and some mischievous eggers-on from the other side, was whether he could also claim American citizenship by birth. It turns out he can, given his mother's status.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

Initially, Cruz issued affronted denials that he was anything but American. Then, upon discovering that he was "technically" also Canadian, he scrambled to disavow and formally renounce any tie to his native land -- even though dual citizens can technically become president. Cruz's comical predicament illuminates three things about the politics of American identity in this era of demographic flux.

First, it is a reminder that people of color, whatever their party, are still more likely than whites to be presumed foreign. John McCain, born in the Panama Canal, and Mitt Romney, born to a father born in Mexico, never faced conspiracy theories about whether they were ersatz Americans or Americans with divided loyalties. Barack Obama, of course, did. And for a moment, at least, so did Cruz.

They're the lucky ones. Millions of regular Americans who don't care about their qualifications for the presidency are nonetheless subjected daily to suspicion based on their non-whiteness.

Second, those who live by race-tinged insinuations can die by them, too. Cruz felt that he had to act swiftly to nip rumors of his outsiderness in the bud because he realized just how viciously they could spread out of control. He realized this because it was members of his own party who had incubated and propagated such insinuations about whether our son-of-a-Kenyan president was insufficiently committed to the American way.

What goes around comes around, and when Donald Trump (who declined to rule on Cruz's status because he hadn't "studied it enough") is an arbiter of national authenticity, nobody is safe.

Can Ted Cruz run for president?

Perhaps the most delicious aspect of the Cruz citizenship flap is that his form of alleged alienness was Canadian. What could be worse, for an anti-government rugged individualist, than a blood association with the land of free health care and the home of brave bureaucrats? What could be worse, for a party struggling to diversify, than to have this Latin-Texan hopeful smothered in the blandness of a Canadian Eh?

Perhaps Ted Cruz, chastened by his brush with un-American identity, will proceed with greater empathy for those on the margins of American life. Perhaps leaders in his party will learn to forego the short-term electoral benefits of whipping up white fear of decline and white mistrust of people who may seem foreign. And perhaps activists from the other party will resist the temptation to brand any nonwhite conservative as a traitor or a fraud.

Or perhaps not. What is certain is that the rest of this century will bring only more and more visible instances of political leaders who embody the ethnic complexity and impurity of citizenship in the United States. The party that figures out best how to embrace that complexity and convert it into an asset will be not just the majority party. It will be the most American party.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Liu.

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