Memo to 2016 candidates: Stop saying you'll amend the Constitution. You won't.
Looking at you, Scott Walker
It's been 23 years since we last amended the Constitution, and that was for a relatively unglamourous and uncontroversial idea: When Congress votes itself a pay raise, it won't take effect until the next Congress is seated. Despite the fact that few people ever voiced much objection, this amendment took 203 years to be ratified (really, no joke). Yet we still often act as though amending the Constitution would be possible on issues that are deeply contentious.
Or at least that's what presidential candidates tell us. Faced with the possibility of an upcoming Supreme Court decision declaring that same-sex couples have the same right to marry as anyone else — a decision that could come in a matter of weeks — some Republicans are falling back on the idea of amending the Constitution. Not to ban same-sex marriage nationally, but to allow individual states to ban it if they choose. Sunday on ABC's This Week, Scott Walker came out in support of such an amendment: "I personally believe that marriage is between one man and one woman," he said. "If the court decides that, the only next approach is for those who are supporters of marriage being defined as between one man and one woman is ultimately to consider pursuing a constitutional amendment."
It's a long way from what Republicans sounded like a decade or so ago, when they were aggressively advocating the Constitution be amended to ban any gay Americans from marrying altogether, but that shows how far the GOP has traveled in such a short time. The party's leaders are still lagging behind the public, both as a whole and in much of their own party; this recent CNN poll found that 63 percent of Americans think the Constitution does give same-sex couples the right to marry, and a majority of Republicans and Republican leaners under the age of 50 agreed.
Walker would probably argue that his position is a modest one, just allowing states to do what they wish (though marriage equality advocates argue that we don't put fundamental rights to a vote). And he's not the first Republican presidential candidate to say so. Ted Cruz has created his own constitutional amendment to that effect, and other candidates might come along. A couple, though, including Carly Fiorina, have rejected a constitutional amendment to reverse such a decision. It shows the tension underlying this issue for Republicans: On one hand, they are being constantly pulled left by changes in public opinion, but on the other hand, they want to signal to socially conservative voters that they're of the same mind.
But advocating a constitutional amendment on this or any other issue is really just a cop-out. It doesn't commit the candidate to doing anything, and it proposes an initiative that will almost inevitably fail. If Scott Walker wants to amend the Constitution, what are we supposed to believe he'll do about it? Not that much, or anything at all. Though it's nice to know where he stands, the president has no role at all in the amendment process.
The same goes for Democrats. Hillary Clinton suggested in April that she might support a constitutional amendment on campaign finance. But she didn't say exactly what such an amendment might do, or how it would succeed given widespread opposition from Republicans. I can say with near-complete certainty that there will not be an amendment to limit big money in politics, so long as there's a Republican Party. You're never going to get three-quarters of the state legislatures to agree to fix something (the influence of big money in politics) that most Republicans don't think is actually a problem at all.
The Founders made amending the Constitution difficult so that it wouldn't be something we could accomplish quickly and rashly according to the whims of the moment. In a divided country, we won't be ratifying any new amendments on anything even remotely controversial. So maybe instead of asking presidential candidates whether they'd amend the Constitution on some issue they care about, we should ask them what they would actually like to do — within the powers of the office they're seeking, and within the political realities they'll face. Then we'd have a better idea of what their presidency might bring.