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Maddow, Pawlenty Debate Limbaugh As Party Leader (VIDEO)

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On last night's Rachel Maddow Show, the MSNBC host discussed the future of the GOP and the ongoing hullabaloo over Rush Limbaugh with Minnesota Governor and McCain supporter Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty used a classic sports metaphor to describe his party's post-election situation: "If this were a sports team, the Republican party would be in a rebuilding year. We have veterans leaving, going on to other things. It is a state of transition. There is going to be chaos, a little bit of bumps in the road. Michael Steele is a dynamic leader. He'll get a good team around him and get this straightened out."

Meanwhile, if you were hoping that Pawlenty would sign himself up as a member of the rather small GOP chorus of Limbaugh disapproval, you were likely disappointed. In his remarks, Pawlenty navigated himself very cautiously. "From my standpoint we need to wish President Obama well. We don't need to agree with him on everything," he professed, while insisting that "Rush Limbaugh made it clear he doesn't like President Obama's policies. That is a fair critique from his perspective." Noting a couple of times that he was quoting Limbaugh very carefully -- one might revise: selectively -- Pawlenty worked to stake out some middle terrain between hoping for Obama's failure and hoping for certain policies to prove to be unfruitful:

MADDOW: Is it dangerous if he becomes the face of the party, though? His rhetoric is very, very partisan. His rhetoric is not the kind of measured rhetoric we have heard from you, Bobby Jindal and people like Charlie Crist, people are vying for that title. He is more of a household name than you guys are. That is an ideological struggle and stylistic struggle, isn't it?

PAWLENTY: No. We are going to have a coalition that involves all sorts of conservatives and independents and democrats. We need Rush Limbaugh and his followers. We need Michael Steele and the people he can persuade and Bobby Jindal and a bunch of other folks as well. We need to grow this party. It is not about contraction. It is about expansion. We have a coalition. One part of that is Rush Limbaugh and his followers. It is not the only part.

MADDOW: So when David Vitter said Rush speaks for me, I agree with him when he wants the president's policies to fail, you don't see a problem in that in terms of trying to increase the size of the party? I'm not pressing you on this for the sake of pressing you on this. It doesn't actually seem possible to me you think Rush saying he wants the president to fail is going to be part of the Republican party increasing its size. That is a political thing to say. I honestly don't believe you believe it.

PAWLENTY: What I believe in terms of what Rush said is the quote I read where he said I don't want President Obama's policies to fail. I wish no ill will on the country. I think we take him at his word. That is the quote I read and you are precise with your language and your words with your training. That is a fair quote from Rush's perspective. He doesn't like President Obama's policies and he hopes they don't do well because he doesn't want them to be the platform of going forward.

Pawlenty's tiptoeing aside, it's worth pointing out that even as the Limbaugh narrative is drumming up a media din, here we have Tim Pawlenty returning as a guest for Maddow, setting a contrast by having a very cordial political discussion. This reflects very well on host and guest, I think! And from Pawlenty's side, you could do a lot worse as a Republican than emerge from an interview with Maddow with her having proclaimed your rhetoric to be "measured.".

[WATCH.]

MADDOW: Joining us now is Governor Pawlenty. It is kind for you to come back on the show.

PAWLENTY: Happy to do it.

MADDOW: I have to ask if you dread talking to the media because you will get asked if you think Rush Limbaugh is wrong hoping the President will fail.

PAWLENTY: He was wishing his socialistic policies fail. Not the country. There is clarity around that. Rachel, if this were a sports team the Republican party would be in a rebuilding year. We have veterans leaving going on to other things. It is a state of transition. There is going to be chaos, a little bit of bumps in the road. Michael Steele is a dynamic leader. He'll get a good team around him and get this straightened out.

MADDOW: I have to press you on the Rush Limbaugh, hoping for the policies to fail, they are the policies of the federal government to get us to survive the economic collapse. Rooting for the policies to fail is still rooting for the country to fail, doesn't it?

PAWLENTY: From my standpoint we need to wish President Obama well. We don't need to agree with him on everything. Rush Limbaugh made it clear he doesn't like President Obama's policies. That is a fair critique from his perspective. I don't think he is saying Barack Obama is a failure, I wish ill will on the country. He says I don't like these policies and I hope they are failures.

MADDOW: If he comes off you when you say he didn't say he wants Barack Obama to fail, which is what he said, are you afraid of that getting picked on by Rush Limbaugh is dangerous.

PAWLENTY: I read what he said or quoted from the other day very carefully. I just summarized what he said. He can speak more directly. Let's address the leader of the party. The party doesn't have a leader at the moment. There are centers of influence. Rush Limbaugh has an incredible skill and gift for informing people, persuading people, mobilizing people. If you can do that with a neighbor one-on-one or on the radio you are going to have influence. Same you have influence with your audience or Keith Olbermann or Ed Schultz wants to be the Democrat analog to Rush Limbaugh. Everybody who has that platform is going to have impact. He has a lot of influence because he is very gifted at it.

MADDOW: Is it dangerous he becomes the face of the party, though? His rhetoric is very, very partisan. His rhetoric is not the kind of measured rhetoric we have heard from you, Bobby Jindal and people like Charlie Crist, people are vying for that title. He is more of a household name than you guys are. That is an ideological struggle and stylistic struggle, isn't it?

PAWLENTY: No. We are going to have a coalition that involves all sorts of conservatives and independents and democrats. We need Rush Limbaugh and his followers. We need Michael Steele and the people he can persuade and Bobby Jindal and a bunch of other folks as well. We need to grow this party. It is not about contraction. It is about expansion. We have a coalition. One part of that is Rush Limbaugh and his followers. It is not the only part.

MADDOW: So when David Vitter said Rush speaks for me, I agree with him when he wants the president's policies to fail you don't see a problem in that in terms of trying to increase the size of the party? I'm not pressing you on this for the sake of pressing you on this. It doesn't actually seem possible to me you think Rush saying he wants the president to fail is going to be part of the Republican party increasing its size. That is a politic thing to say. I honestly don't believe you believe it.

PAWLENTY: What I believe in terms of what Rush said is the quote I read where he said I don't want President Obama's policies to fail. I wish no ill will on the country. I think we take him at his word. That is the quote I read and you are precise with your language and your words with your training. That is a fair quote from Rush's perspective. He doesn't like President Obama's policies and he hopes they don't do well because he doesn't want them to be the platform of going forward.

MADDOW: If that's the way he had been putting it he wouldn't be in the middle of this controversy. Let me ask you a question not about Rush Limbaugh. You said at CPAC the reports on the Republicans demise is exaggerated. But in the polls, Americans trust Democrats over Republicans 28, 30 points. The party is at an all time low, 26%. you said there is going to have to be a course correction. Do you think the party has to get more moderate?

PAWLENTY: I think the party will remain a conservative party. Any suggestion this is going to be different defies history and the principles and foundations of the party. It is not about having Republicans act more like democrats or liberals. It is trying to get more democrats and independents to be supportive of Republican ideas and candidates. We have to do a better job at informing, mobilizing and winning elections. It is going to take Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. We have to build a coalition. All of those pieces are important.

MADDOW: It does mean if they are all part of the same coalition every time Mr. Hannity or Mr. Limbaugh says something incredibly controversial, it means you are going to have to be on shows like this answering to them, for them.

PAWLENTY: It is going to be more than one voice or one person. A symphony, not one soloist. There is room for a whole range of thoughts and people and leaders until this gets more focused and developed. It is going to be a sorting out process. This is about addition not subtraction. You are going to get so big and powerful with the show someday, you are going to have the same influence on the left. In some ways you already do. You and Keith and Ed Schultz. No one says Rachel has undue influence.

MADDOW: Nobody apologizes to me, Governor, with all due respect. Tim Pawlenty, you are a good sport. Thank you for being on the show.

PAWLENTY: Happy to do it.