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JOAN VENNOCHI

Demonizing Clinton can backfire for Trump

JOAN VENNOCHI

CLEVELAND

Hillary for Prison — not Donald Trump for President — powers up this convention.

On Tuesday night, Governor Chris Christie got the hall going by playing a New Jersey nasty version of Madame Defarge. Like the character from “A Tale of Two Cities” who reveled in the guillotine, Christie joyfully prosecuted his case against Hillary Clinton, public enemy number one, in Cleveland.

“Guilty or not guilty?” he asked delegates, going down a list of alleged Clinton crimes, from Benghazi to the Boko Haram abductions of Nigerian schoolgirls. The verdict from this crowd-turned-jury: “Guilty!” Of course. And these delegates would probably recommend the death penalty.

Politics ain’t beanbag and all that. But when chants of “Lock her up!” trump “Trump!” as a way to electrify delegates at a political convention, something strange is happening. The need to completely demonize your opponent signals a lack of faith in your nominee.

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Sure, some on the far left wanted to prosecute George W. Bush for war crimes. But no one called for his imprisonment from the convention hall in Denver in 2008. Of course, Bush was no longer on the ballot then; John McCain was. And, in the speech he gave to accept his party’s nomination, Barack Obama addressed “the failed policies of George W. Bush” and questioned John McCain’s judgment in supporting them. But he also told Democrats, “The Republican nominee has worn the uniform of our country with honor and distinction, and for that we owe him gratitude and respect.”

Trump would be wise to read that speech, although he should be careful about recycling lines from it. To win the general election, he needs to strive for higher ground than the dark valley Republicans are inhabiting in Cleveland.

Trump took the low, “Crooked Hillary” road to the nomination. Now, if he is at all capable of doing so, he needs to elevate the campaign, not sink it lower. Trump’s wife and children have risen above the toxicity. But with the exception of a few, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, most speakers are contributing to the muck.

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It’s tempting to keep throwing it. Clinton has made mistakes. The private e-mail server is one of them, and so is her tone-deaf response to the FBI’s findings about it. Obama administration foreign policy during her tenure as secretary of state is open to reasonable challenge. But accusations of conspiracy and murder go too far, and some delegates in the hall know it.

Both Clinton and Trump have problems telling the truth. When voters start weighing one’s problems against the other, it will be more challenging to Trump than the Clinton haters want to believe. Painting Clinton’s character flaws as evil corruption can backfire. The last thing Republicans should want to do is turn the country’s first female presidential nominee into a sympathetic character.

That’s what attacks like the one from Patricia Smith can do. “That’s right, Hillary for prison. She deserves to be in stripes,” said Smith, the grieving mother of Benghazi victim Sean Smith, as she finished up a speech in which she blamed Clinton personally for the death of her son.

Darryl Glenn, a Colorado US Senate candidate, took a similar approach in his remarks: “We know she enjoys her pantsuits, but we should send her an e-mail telling her what she deserves is a bright orange jumpsuit.”

The Trump supporter outside the hall with the signs that read “Hillary for Prison” and “Trump vs. Tramp” sums up the attitude inside the hall.

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So far, it’s small, petty, and mean.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.