The good news is that Donald Trump lost the first debate. The bad news is that his content-lite attack on Hillary Clinton worked for the first 30 minutes. And as for the rest of the evening, where his self-absorption got the best of him, he's capable of improving.
Remember, Barack Obama was steamrolled in his first debate against Mitt Romney four years ago. The President was as energetic as a flatlining heart monitor, but he upped his game in their next two meetings and went on to win the election. Mr. Trump may have lost the first engagement, but one battle doesn't decide a war.
Mr. Trump is clearly unfit for office, but those who think his chances of winning can therefore be dismissed have repeatedly been proved wrong. As of last weekend, polls showed his support had grown, putting him in a dead heat with Ms. Clinton.
Mr. Trump doesn't have the mind, the platform or the experience of someone who should be president. But if he can just act presidential, appearing confident, commanding and above all calm in settings like the debates, that could be enough to push him over the top with voters.
On Monday, however, Mr. Trump spent the latter part of the debate acting as if he was trying to convince undecided voters to look elsewhere. Questions about his unreleased tax returns and his business dealings sent him into meandering, nonsensical responses. He blustered about his "winning temperament," and sounded like a hollow man.
But if you watched only the early innings on Monday night, you saw Mr. Trump winning. He overwhelmed both the moderator and Ms. Clinton. He was the alpha gorilla, and Ms. Clinton was thrown off balance by his calmly intemperate attacks. His displays of dominance were disconcertingly effective.
The part of the debate that Mr. Trump won was not about ideas. Solutions are his weak suit. It was instead a performance of hyperbolic outrage at an America that, in his telling, is losing jobs, losing wars, losing against crime and losing its future.
His pitch is that everything is broken, and Hillary and the Democrats broke it. The story isn't true, but many Americans are open to it. If Mr. Trump can stick to that message, and do it calmly, the next debate could go very differently. The election isn't over yet. Not by a long shot.