‘SORRY,” IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE…. At last night’s debate for some Republican presidential candidates, Fox News moderators pressed Tim Pawlenty on his least favorite subject.

The moderator announced that everyone should turn their attention to a old radio ad for an environmental group in which Mr. Pawlenty heartily endorses a cap-and-trade policy — practically apostasy in his party.

“Do we have to?” Mr. Pawlenty quipped awkwardly. His voice soon echoed through the auditorium saying “cap greenhouse gas pollution now!”

But in a response that was clearly carefully prepared, Mr. Pawlenty looked right at the camera after the radio ad played, apologized to the American people, and said he had made a “mistake.”

“I’ve said I was wrong. It was a mistake, and I’m sorry,” Mr. Pawlenty told the Fox television audience, presumably filled with potential Republican primary voters. “You’re going to have a few clunkers in your record, and we all do, and that’s one of mine. I just admit it. I don’t try to duck it, bob it, weave it, try to explain it away. I’m just telling you, I made a mistake.”

Pawlenty isn’t the only GOP presidential hopeful who briefly acknowledged reality but now regrets it, but he’s the only one who seems anxious to turn his reversal into a positive — we’re supposed to admire Pawlenty’s bold rejection of science and willingness to admit he was wrong (when he was right).

But for anyone who takes reason seriously, Pawlenty is just embarrassing himself. As Republicans go, he was actually quite progressive on climate policy, not only backing cap-and-trade, but also supporting ambitious renewable energy policies and leaving no doubt he considered climate change a serious national threat. He even appeared in an Environmental Defense Fund commercial in support of a cap-and-trade plan, alongside then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D).

What’s more, Pawlenty was right — a fact he hopes Republicans will forget and/or forgive. His “mistake,” to use the word he mentioned last night, was finding value in evidence.

Remember, it was just a few years ago that the public was concerned about the climate crisis, and Republicans — including the McCain/Palin ticket — responded by embracing a cap-and-trade plan. Democrats ultimately saw the GOP proposal as a viable option, only to find Republicans denouncing their own idea. (Yes, it’s pretty similar to the health care fight.)

And now that the American mainstream cares less about the issue, and the Republican rank-and-file has been told by Fox News that climate science is a communist conspiracy, party leaders no longer feel the need to keep up appearances.

Still, it’s awful to see what Republicans have to do to themselves in order to press right-wing activists.

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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.