The first thing to note is that, despite the avalanche of media coverage and articles such as this one, presidential debates may not matter very much. At the very least, the evidence is mixed. The second thing is that what the candidates say is probably secondary to how they look, and how they react in an unscripted way. As James Fallows points out, one reliable way to pick tonight's winner might be to hit the 'mute' button.
That said, some initial thoughts which I jotted down as I watched:
- If in fact this debate really is being decided on visuals and the 'human moments' rather than policy substance, then on the first 30 minutes in particular, Clinton wins. Trump was incredibly rude; constantly interrupting, talking over his opponent, and pointing at her aggressively.
- According to Trump, America is being fleeced by other countries, but his framing is fascinating. He praises the 'opposition': China is the 'best'; Mexico has a smart tax system; America is being ripped off by every country in the world; other countries have incredible airports. Trump is telling Americans that they are being overtaken, and that America may not be as exceptional as it thinks. That's kind of extraordinary, but certainly reflects the historical moment.
- Incredible: Trump says America has spent $6 trillion in the Middle East when it could have been spending on infrastructure at home. Not long ago, you would have been hounded out of the Republican Party with pitchforks for a sentiment like that. Now the GOP's nominee says it. The Republican Party is being transformed before our eyes.
- Clinton got into a slanging match over NAFTA, which was weak territory for her and strong for Trump. But Trump spent much of this period badgering Clinton, which looked really unattractive.
- Let's not blind ourselves to how extraordinary Trump is; how many 'rules' (norms, really) he has broken in US presidential politics. Tonight he directly talks down the US economy, saying that the economy is in a bubble and that the Fed is being more political than Clinton. Unprecedented.
- Clinton jabbed early by saying Trump was born with a silver spoon. Trump took up the point but in a fairly reserved way. Later Clinton launches her strongest attack, on Trump's refusal to release his tax returns (again, unprecedented) and his record as a businessman. A lot of pre-debate commentary suggested Trump could be baited into self-destructive counter-attacks, and Clinton has tried. But it has to be said this tactic failed.
- On race relations, Clinton casts herself as the optimist against Trump's vision of lawless inner cities. Optimism is usually a winning strategy for US presidential candidates, but then again, these are not normal times.
- Clinton pivots to Trump's right on the question of cyber-security, arguing that America needs to be more assertive and more capable. Trump is too close to Russia, she says, and incredibly...Trump defends the Russians! He says it might not have been Moscow which hacked the DNC. Why didn't Clinton point this out in her response?
- On national security and counter-terrorism, Clinton sounds too much like the type of foreign-policy establishment figure against whom Americans are clearly rebelling. She praises NATO and implies that she wants more surveillance, and at the end of the debate she sends a message to America's allies that it will continue its historical world role. It seems out of touch with the times. By contrast, Trump doubles down on his 'heresy' that America's allies don't pay their way, and says America cannot be the policeman of the world.
- 'Wooh, OK'. That's Clinton's smiling and ever-so slightly condescending put-down in reaction to Trump's spray about his winning temperament and Clinton being 'out of control'. That's going to become a meme.
- On nuclear weapons, Trump says 'We should certainly not do first strike'. Did Trump just announce a no-first use policy?
- Clinton's late attack on Trump's sexism was strong, and Trump's riposte incredibly weak.
Photo: Getty Images/Joe Raedle