Lock her up? 4 ways for Hillary Clinton to strike back

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

The RNC's attack on HIllary Clinton's character was effective but there's plenty of room for the Democrats to strike back, says Julian Zelizer

The convention needs to sell voters on Hillary as a person and to zing Trump, he says

CNN  — 

Lock her up?

Donald Trump and the Republicans used their convention to tell a very specific story: That Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, is corrupt and even a criminal. Although some time was devoted to talking about Trump the person on the final night, Cleveland witnessed a blistering series of attacks on Clinton, with the convention rhetoric sinking to historically low levels.

Although Trump contained himself to saying “let’s defeat her in November” the chants of “lock her up!” were the sounds that resonated the loudest in the convention hall and in the ears of the audience. The messages were delivered from the podium, not just the floor. “That’s right. Lock her up,” responded Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn to the raucous delegates. Trump’s moniker for his opponent, “Crooked Hillary,” seemed to have caught on.

How should Hillary Clinton and the Democrats use their time in Philadelphia this week? Whatever they do, it will be almost impossible for Democrats to compete with the kind of reality television, WWE wrestling-style production that Americans saw in Cleveland. Nonetheless, Clinton could still use her time well and focus on a number of areas where her campaign has struggled.

Here are four things the Democrats should do:

1) Sell the merits of Clinton as a person

The most important part of her challenge will be to sell Hillary Clinton the person. Despite all the time that she has spent on the national stage, many voters still don’t seem to feel they have a good grasp of who she is. Her opponents in both parties have portrayed her as a ruthlessly ambitious politician who has no heart and soul – that she will do and say anything to achieve power. This convention is the best chance that she has ever had to persuade Americans otherwise.

Through her own words, as well as those of her supporters and family, the convention needs to be as much about who Clinton is as the policies she supports. She needs the kind of moment that her husband enjoyed in his convention, when the Democrats played a film “The Man From Hope” that revealed the humble origins of the future president and sought to show just how rooted he was in the struggles of average Americans.

The convention needs to show that Hillary Clinton is more than a political machine. The speeches need to open a window into her personality, her hopes and fears, her passions, her humor and what has defined her character.

2) Counter doom and gloom

The Democratic Convention needs to present a stark emotional alternative to the Republican message of gloom and doom. In Cleveland the Republicans intentionally appealed to the worst fears of the electorate, painting a bleak picture of America that sounded more like Batman’s Gotham than the city on the hill.

The Democrats cannot replicate this message, since they will never do it as well as Donald Trump, but must instead tell viewers about another way to look at our current moment – with optimistic eyes. In this particular case Hillary Clinton can use a bit of Ronald Reagan, who usually liked to promise voters a better future. This is essential given that a key part of the Clinton campaign has been her effort to connect herself to President Obama and his achievements.

With Obama’s approval ratings over 50%, this can be an effective tactic. To make it work, she needs to use the convention to move the narrative beyond the terrorist attacks, racial conflict and economic struggles that dominate the headlines. Without ignoring them, she needs to make a strong case about why the nation is still moving in the right direction after eight years of a Democrat in the White House and why she can do even better.

When this kind of argument has been done well in the past it has demonstrated the capacity to frame an entire campaign. In 1932, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt inspired the audience at Chicago Stadium when, delivering the first acceptance speech in the history of conventions, he pledged to the nation a “new deal for the American people.”

John F. Kennedy energized skeptical Democrats when he told them in 1956 that the nation was on the “edge of a new frontier.” Sometimes the surrogates have been the people to deliver that message instead. In Philadelphia in 1948, Minnesota Senate candidate Hubert Humphrey rocked the party when he declared that “the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights,” a message directly targeting conservative Southern Democrats who refused to move forward on civil rights.

Likewise, Ronald Reagan stole the show in 1976 when he recounted being asked to draft a letter to be put in a time capsule to be opened in 2076, when the people reading it would know “whether we have met our challenge” to avoid nuclear war. “Whether they have the freedoms that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here,” he said.

3. Showcase diversity

The Democrats need to use the convention to stress their diversity. Many commentators were struck by how white and male the Republican Convention was, with a few exceptions like Ben Carson and Sheriff David Clarke. It seemed that Trump intentionally played up this theme rather than trying to hide it. The convention, which even included the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, was a macho political celebration on steroids. There were moments we expected Sgt. Slaughter to appear on the stage and promise to reprise his star role as a professional wrestler who will go after the Iron Sheiks of today.

That is not the kind of party Hillary Clinton envisions and with her at the top of the ticket, seeking to replace the first African-American president, she can make that case effectively. The convention needs to showcase the social, political, economic, ethnic and racial diversity of the Democratic Party.

At a moment in American history where the population is undergoing dramatic transformations as the era of the dominant white male comes to an end, this convention can make a case that a victory for Democrats is a victory for a party that fits in today’s world.

The Democrats also need to make clear that their party has room for ideological diversity. The DNC email controversy of the past few days, which resulted in Debbie Wasserman Schultz announcing she would be stepping down, brings back the tensions that emerged within the party as a result of Bernie Sanders’ run. Rather than saying the party is moving in one direction or the other, Clinton can make the case that it can house a multiplicity of ideological perspectives under one party banner.

4. Zing Trump

Finally, the Democrats will have to use some of their time to go negative. Conventions are usually two parts celebration and one part denigration.

At the same time that Democrats try to separate themselves from the Republican cage match, they shouldn’t be too polite. As Finley Peter Dunne wrote, politics ain’t bean bag. And when the opponent is Donald Trump, a candidate needs to be prepared to hit hard.

The history of conventions is littered with famous moments of political attack, such as the keynote address of 1988 when Texas Gov. Anne Richards quipped that Vice President George H.W. Bush was “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” The best zingers paint a portrait of the opponent that is hard to forget, a line or a statement that gets to the essence of what’s wrong with the other person. Given what we have heard, that line will have something to do with what Democrats see as the instability of Trump as a person and leader.

So the Democrats have a lot of work cut out for them in the coming week. But they need to use it well. Even though party conventions are not what they used to be, they still are big events that the party nominee can use to effectively set up the fall campaign and push the conversation in such a way that makes it difficult for their opponent to ever catch up.