There were four takeaways from Wednesday night’s Republican debate.

First and foremost, Rick Perry melted down…again. He said he would get rid of three government agencies: Commerce, Education and…[long, awkward silence]. Even after Ron Paul and Mitt Romney threw out some names – EPA? – Perry couldn’t recall what he would abolish. Apparently he’s trying to make his candidacy as inconsequential in your life as possible.

Second, Herman Cain again answered nearly every question by referring to his widely discredited 9-9-9 plan – even when the moderators instructed him that doing so wouldn’t be a credible answer. It’s not cute anymore, and the slogan can’t make up for Cain’s lack of substance. Nor can calling Nancy Pelosi “Princess Nancy.”

Third, Newt Gingrich took the risk of criticizing Occupy Wall Street, saying, “Who’s going to pay for the park you’re occupying if there are no businesses?” If he becomes the next anti-Romney to shoot up the polls, lines such as that one that will help propel him.

Fourth, Mitt Romney won by default, again. He and Jon Huntsman were the only ones who answered questions about the European financial crisis with any facility, and the frontrunner’s most obvious gaffe was forgetting how long he’s been married.

One nagging point of substance, though. The candidates once again competed to express maximal reverence for free markets and modest government. Yet, once again, many also descended into incoherence by arguing for the use of state power to direct economic activity when it’s not through a “bailout,” the Education Department or some other right-wing bugaboo. Rick Santorum argued for pumping up manufacturing. Perry asserted that “If you are too big to fail, you are too big,” which implies government regulation. Romney ranted about slapping punitive tariffs on China.

Huntsman pointed out to that raising tariffs would ignite a trade war, and that saying otherwise is pandering, which isn’t an applause line but does demonstrate a level-headedness that explains why journalists might take him more seriously than they do other candidates with similarly low poll numbers.