So she won the debate on points, and probably won it in the court of public opinion, and in the process eased liberal anxiety and pushed the race back toward its “Hillary by four” equilibrium.
What she didn’t do, however, was goad Trump into a true meltdown or knock him out with a truly devastating attack.
If the goal for both candidates was to avoid self-inflicted wounds, Clinton certainly had the better showing. Trump showed how easily he could be baited and distracted by criticism, and even when he was gesturing in the direction of talking about policy he fell back on many of his worst arguments (e.g., “take the oil,” inane complaints about the nuclear deal, etc.). As I recall, the only attack on Clinton that really landed was when he hit her on her cynical maneuvering on TPP, and that attack worked because it happened to be true and reminded voters why Clinton isn’t trustworthy, but the vast majority of Americans don’t know or care about TPP and so the effect of this attack will likely be minimal.
Remarkably, Trump mostly failed to use Clinton’s foreign policy record against her, and he spent more of his time having to clarify or defend his own “positions” with little success. He mentioned the Libyan war only in passing, but never even tried to explain why Clinton was responsible for any of it. Clinton was able to deflect this by pointing out that Trump backed intervention in Libya, and that was the end of it. Foreign policy is one of Clinton’s biggest liabilities and one of the most obvious ways to question her judgment, but Trump isn’t prepared enough to talk about policy to use it against her. Clinton also avoided having to say very much about her position on what should be done in Syria. The candidates were never asked about it, and she mentioned the country briefly as part of an answer about the war on ISIS. Overall, the foreign policy section of the debate touched on only a handful of issues, most of which were related to U.S. policies in the Near East. If anyone wanted to know about something other than the candidates’ views on Iran and Russia, last night’s debate wouldn’t have provided many answers.