The Maximum Damage Theory

The Maximum Damage Theory has been floating around for some time now. It holds that Hillary Clinton knows she can’t win the nomination but wants to hurt Obama as much as possible so he’ll lose in November and she can run against McCain in 2012. So far, the theory hasn’t gotten much traction beyond blog comments.

But in an interview with the New York Times today, Rep. James Clyburn becomes one of the first leaders to articulate this view. Here’s the paraphrase:

Mr. Clyburn added that there appeared to be an almost unanimous view among African-Americans that Mr. and Mrs. Clinton were committed to doing everything they possibly could to damage Mr. Obama to a point that he could never win in the general election.

Note that Clyburn doesn’t endorse the theory—he merely points out its existence.

But there’s a big problem with the notion, which is that both candidates have pledged to support the Democratic nominee in the general election. “I will do everything to make sure that the people who supported me will support the nominee,” Clinton said this month. Obama also said that “the Democratic Party will come together” once the nominee is chosen. Even the spouses are onboard: Bill has said he would campaign for Obama were he to become the nominee, while Michelle Obama told ABC that “everyone in this party is going to work hard for whoever the nominee is.”

So if that’s true—if the loser is going to campaign for the winner—it makes no sense that Clinton would simultaneously try to inflict damage on Obama. You can’t praise him and undermine him at the same time, at least not without the calculation looking awfully transparent. If anything, she’ll have to do some serious atoning for her negative attacks on Obama in order to get back in the party’s good graces.

I suppose it’s not impossible that the primary will get so nasty that neither Clinton nor Obama will want to look at each other again, let alone campaign for each other. Or maybe Hillary secretly hopes Obama won’t ask her to campaign for him, which would make the current negativity productive for a 2012 run. But in presidential races, unity is necessary, and necessity heals all wounds. Just ask Mitt Romney.