Speakeasy with John Harwood

Conservative pundit Bill Kristol explains how Sarah Palin helped pave Trump's path to the White House

Key Points
  • Conservative pundit Bill Kristol says Sarah Palin's charm and popularity impressed him, at first.
  • Her presence on the national stage foretold a hunger for celebrity politics, he says.
Kristol: Palin a harbinger of GOP to come

CNBC's John Harwood recently sat down with conservative pundit Bill Kristol to discuss a wide range of topics, including the proper role of government, the state of conservative media, how businesses "sucking up" to President Donald Trump are creeping him out, and, here, the rise and fall of one-time vice president candidate Sarah Palin.

What follows is an edited excerpt of their conversation:

Sarah Palin
RJ Sangosti | The Denver Post | Getty Images

Harwood: There are people who trace a direct line from Sarah Palin to Donald Trump. It is characterized as "the dumbing down of Republican politics," an anti-intellectual movement, which is odd from you because you are an intellectual.

Kristol: Yeah, she turned out to be a disappointment. I mean, when she was picked, she was a popular governor of Alaska who had taken on the oil companies and so forth. I thought Palin as [John] McCain's VP would be a way to almost channel a certain kind of populism into what I would say is a healthy conservatism.

Harwood: You discovered her on a Weekly Standard cruise, right?

Kristol: She invited Fred Barnes and me and our families over to lunch at the governor's residence there. And we were impressed by her. And she was charming. And she was different — 42-year-old governor of Alaska, kind of an exotic state.

I had been originally for John McCain picking Joe Lieberman — a centrist play against Barack Obama. And they chose not to go that way. And then I thought, 'OK, well, why not take the gamble with Palin?'

But I will say this. For all the alleged dumbing down, the people who ran and won in 2010 and 2012 were pretty impressive, a lot of them. The Republican ticket in 2012 was Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Whatever again you think of them, that's not a dumbed-down ticket.

So I thought, 'OK, Palin, they didn't win.' And I thought, 'OK, she chose to be a celebrity rather than a politician.' I didn't realize that we were going into a celebrity culture — such a celebrity culture that Trump would actually as a celebrity run and win in 2016.

I don't think Palin really led to Trump. Was this somehow a bit of a precursor or something? I'm willing to say, 'Maybe so.'

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