I am having a debate with the Obama campaign about the first-person pronoun. On Thursday night, Sen. Hillary Clinton suggested she would negotiate with Iran without preconditions. ''I would engage in negotiations with Iran, with no conditions, because we don't really understand how Iran works. We think we do, from the outside, but I think that is misleading.''
Sen. Barack Obama has seized on that statement, arguing that she has flip-flopped from her previous assertion that she would not negotiate with dictators. At one level, as I will explain in a second, this is a silly fight about pronouns. At another, it's an incredibly important policy debate. The question of Iran negotiations is an argument about which of the two candidates has a better grasp of the threats that face the country and how to deal with them. Finding the right answer to that question may be the most important thing in the election. Also, which candidate can we trust to tell us the truth, or as close to the truth as a politician will offer? And which candidate will distort the facts to make a point?
It's also a revealing political squabble. One of Hillary's exploitable weaknesses is that voters don't trust her, so accusing her of flip-flopping plays on that vulnerability. That's why John Edwards' campaign, always one degree more aggressive than Obama's, put out a release with this first sentence: "Senator Clinton needs to be honest with the American people about her plans." Clinton's biggest asset, according to polls, is her experience and leadership qualities. She doesn't want to lose a single bit of advantage by looking unsure on foreign affairs. Obama wants to talk about Clinton's missteps on Iran because it is a forward-looking national security issue. He's been talking about how he was right about Iraq five years ago, but that's a backward-looking argument.
So, a lot is at stake in proving that Clinton has flip-flopped on the question of negotiating with Iran. How to interpret what she said? One reading suggests that Clinton is in fact going back on her word. When Barack Obama said he would negotiate with foreign leaders in late July, Clinton said it was naive—that person-to-person negotiations "at that high a level before you know what the intentions are ... [would be] used for propaganda purposes." Obama replied that her refusal to consider such negotiations was proof she was like George Bush. So when Clinton said she would "engage in negotiations," Obama immediately clobbered her for inconsistency: "I'm not sure if any of us knows exactly where she stands on this. But I can tell you this: when I am President of the United States, the American people and the world will always know where I stand."
When I told an Obama aide I didn't think she was changing her position on direct personal negotiations with Iranian leaders, the aide asked, "So when she says I, she actually means someone else?" The answer is yes. Clinton is using a common campaign construction in which the first-person singular stands for the entire administration. So, for example, when Obama pledges, as he did earlier in the month, "I will begin to remove our troops from Iraq immediately," he is not saying that he will go to Iraq to do the job himself. He's saying he would task his secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs to get the job done. So, too, with Clinton: She would task people to negotiate, but it does not necessarily follow from her statement that she would do the negotiations herself, which has always been her distinction. There's no evidence she was talking about direct negotiations with foreign leaders. Hence, no flip-flop.