PAWLENTY’S DELICATE DANCE ON THE ’08 BAILOUT…. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) really wants to impress the Republican base in advance of his presidential campaign, and assumes that candidates who supported the 2008 financial industry rescue will struggle to win the party’s 2012 nomination.

To that end, Pawlenty bashes the bailout in his new book. “When the rain started to fall on America’s picnic, Washington hung up a big old plastic TARP to protect us from the deluge,” he wrote. “Ever wonder why they call some of these things ‘tarp funds’? Good intentions, maybe, but a bad decision.”

The problem for Pawlenty is that, during the ’08 campaign, he served as a leading surrogate for the McCain/Palin campaign, and repeatedly defended the GOP ticket’s support for the bailout. This came up yesterday on Fox News, and the former governor had a creative explanation.

Likely Republican 2012 presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty said Sunday that when he promoted a bailout plan aimed at stabilizing the imploding mortgage market in 2008 he was speaking solely as a surrogate for GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona and never actually supported the idea himself.

“Play the tape. It says ‘he believes’ and I was speaking as a spokesperson for Senator McCain,” the former Minnesota governor said on “Fox News Sunday” after host Chris Wallace played video of Pawlenty endorsing what was billed as a bailout for both the mortgage industry and “Main Street.”

“But I didn’t support — don’t support — bailing out places like Wall Street, General Motors and the like with respect to the federal role of government,” Pawlenty said.

That’s quite a pitch, isn’t it? At the moment of a global economic crisis, the Republican ticket supported a financial industry bailout. Pawlenty defended their position, but now wants us to know he didn’t mean it.

He opposed the rescue, but in a not-so-bold display of leaders, Pawlenty decided not to tell anyone. Clearly, this helps demonstrate his presidential qualities.

I realize why Pawlenty feels the need to pursue this nonsense, but there has to be a better defense than this.

He could try to defend the policy he already defended, arguing, for example, that the bailout was effective in preventing a collapse of the financial industry; the program cost far less than expected; the bailed out institutions are paying the money back; etc.

Another alternative would be to point to those who came to the same conclusion in October 2008 that he did — the bailout was requested by a conservative Republican administration (George W. Bush and Dick Cheney); it was enthusiastically endorsed by the House Republican leadership (John Boehner and Eric Cantor); it was enthusiastically endorsed by the Senate Republican leadership (Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl); it was enthusiastically endorsed by the Republican presidential ticket (John McCain and Sarah Palin); and enjoyed the support of assorted, high-profile conservative voices (Mitt Romney and Glenn Beck).

Pawlenty is worried about the party’s right-wing base, but it should count for something to say, “I took the same position on this as Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, and Glenn Beck,” right? It’s bound to be a better defense than, “I didn’t believe what I was saying at the time.”

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.