Chris Christie wasn’t the only one prosecuting the case against Hillary Clinton last night—Ben Carson tossed out a reference to Lucifer—but he was clearly the lead attorney.
The onetime federal prosecutor delivered a political indictment that roused the crowd here in Cleveland, and the media reaction was sharply divided.
Was the guy who missed out on being Donald Trump’s running mate doing the time-honored task of slamming the opposing candidate? Or did he cross a line by rousing the delegates to chant for Hillary to be jailed?
Has there been another spectacle like this in American political history?
As the governor ticked off the case against Clinton—eliciting roars of “guilty!” inside the Quicken Loans Arena—left-leaning commentators were appalled. But keep in mind that there will be no shortage of Trump-bashing next week in Philadelphia.
Christie went beyond the email investigation that could have led to criminal charges against Clinton, but for the judgment of FBI Director James Comey, to include foreign policy controversies in building his case.
On mishandling classified information, he said: “Let’s face it: Hillary Clinton cared more about protecting her own secrets than she did about protecting America's secrets. Then she lied about it over and over again.”
It’s easy to second-guess Christie’s performance. He made a tough run for the presidency—remember how he took apart Marco Rubio in that debate?—and then drew widespread mockery for the way he endorsed Trump.
He openly campaigned for the VP nod that went to Mike Pence and made no secret of his disappointment.
So perhaps he was seeking some measure of vindication with his speech, or trying out for attorney general in a Trump administration.
But can Trump build a winning campaign by demonizing his opponent? Remember, these are two candidates with sky-high negatives. And the Democratic nominee is just as aggressive in casting Trump as unfit for high office.
On the left, Slate was apoplectic over Christie’s performance:
“Chris Christie’s prosecutorial jeremiad against Hillary Clinton on Tuesday night, and the baying bloodlust of the audience, might seem normal. It is not normal...
“Christie’s speech was logically incoherent. Even if you buy his damning interpretation of Clinton’s foreign policy errors, it doesn't make sense to discuss them as matters of criminal malfeasance. Emotionally, though, that’s in keeping with how Clinton’s bitterest foes talk about her: as a person of absolute corruption, who, through some sort of occult trick, moves through the world with intolerable impunity.”
On the right, National Review’s Jim Geraghty was more admiring, saying Christie “certainly remains one of the toughest attack dogs in the Republican party. It’s not often a convention speaker gets a crowd of delegates to chant ‘LOCK HER UP!’ Christie bit into his role with gusto, inviting delegates to ‘do something fun tonight,’ to ‘hold Hillary Clinton accountable for her performance and her character,’ and asking the delegates to decide whether she was ‘guilty, or not guilty.’…
“The media, which had painted Christie as a perpetually humiliated lackey ever since he endorsed Trump, had to give credit where it was due. The Washington Post’s Paul Rucker called Christie’s speech ‘a master class on how to prosecute a political opponent.’ Salina Zito of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review praised his ‘gripping case to the American people on Clinton’s judgment.’”
Christie pulled it off, but there is a danger that some of this rhetoric veers into banana-republic territory. One Trump delegate, New Hampshire state Rep. Al Baldasaro, said yesterday: “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”
It’s no secret this is a divided Republican convention. In an atmosphere where some delegates remain anti-Trump and party leaders like Paul Ryan are barely mentioning Trump in their speeches, Hillary Clinton is a unifying force.
The question now is whether Trump and Mike Pence, while taking their shots at Hillary, will be equally effective at building a positive case for their newly forged ticket.