LOS ANGELES — Here is the important thing to understand about Kevin McCarthy: He has risen from college dropout to the highest rungs of political leadership by being the guy everyone liked. You can’t have too many friends, he likes to say. He was the guy with the pool table in the house he shared with legislators in Sacramento; the guy who slept on the sofa in his congressional office, went mountain biking with colleagues in the morning and hosted movie nights with Chick-fil-A; the guy who could deliver votes and raise money. Everyone, it seemed, liked the California Republican whom President Trump called “my Kevin.”
Until now. Now he is not just disliked, but reviled. No matter how Mr. McCarthy, the House minority leader, tries to finesse the attacks on the 2020 election and the U.S. Capitol, many people — including former friends — will not forgive his blatant acts to embrace and perpetuate dangerous lies that threatened democracy, and lives.
Former U.S. Representative Bill Thomas of California denounced his protégé as a hypocrite. The Sacramento Bee called Mr. McCarthy “a soulless anti-democracy conspirator.” In an emotional video, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose 2006 election marked the last time a Republican was elected statewide in California, took aim at “spineless” Republican elected officials who acted as enablers for the president’s lies. “They are complicit with those who carried the flag of self-righteous insurrection into the Capitol,” the former governor said. “We need public servants that serve something larger than their own power or their own party.”
Hope springs eternal, but no one really expected Mr. McCarthy to rise to the occasion this week; that would have meant breaking with the friends who had gotten him this far. As colleagues faced death threats, Mr. McCarthy could bring himself only to exhort his caucus not to publicly chastise Republicans who supported impeachment because it might endanger their safety. After months of repeating Republican lies that sowed doubt about the legitimacy of the election, Mr. McCarthy acknowledged the obvious — that Mr. Biden had won the fair election — but not before voting against certification of the outcome. And finally, after a week in which many major corporate donors threatened to withhold donations to Republicans who objected to certifying the election results, Mr. McCarthy admitted that the president “bears responsibility” for the attack on the Capitol — and then voted against his impeachment for that egregious act.
Mr. McCarthy sees himself as a leader who acts as a thermostat — setting a temperature and then moving his caucus to reach that degree. He has chosen a scalding temperature that requires little adjustment for a majority of his caucus but scorches an overheated country, threatening the institutions of our democracy. Perhaps this weak leadership will someday still serve his ambition to represent the majority in the House as speaker — or perhaps Mr. McCarthy has wound up being liked by people who represent the political past.
Mr. McCarthy didn’t set out in his political career as an ideological firebrand — quite the opposite. His political origin story, which he tells often, began when the fourth-generation Bakersfield native won $5,000 in the lottery, dropped out of community college, opened a deli, discovered the frustrations of dealing with government regulation, sold the deli, went back to school and, in 1987, began to work for his local congressman, Mr. Thomas. In fact, the deli was a corner in his aunt and uncle’s frozen yogurt shop, which he neither owned nor sold. Still, he beat 40,000-to-1 odds to win the lottery.
The lucky streak continued. In 2003, he became the first freshman assemblyman chosen as minority leader in Sacramento. He took care to call himself the Republican leader, not the minority leader. (He has done the same thing in Washington.) Mr. Thomas said his protégé combined ambition “with an incredible likability. People like to be around Kevin.” When Mr. Thomas retired in 2006, Mr. McCarthy easily won his U.S. House seat.
He became known as a skilled political strategist and prolific fund-raiser whose charm earned him friends around the country. After the Freedom Caucus helped thwart his bid for speaker in 2015, he drifted steadily right. In 2016, he became an early supporter of Donald Trump and cultivated his new friend with trademark thoughtfulness. Learning that the president preferred two flavors of Starbursts, Mr. McCarthy had his staff pick out the cherry and strawberry flavors and fill a jar delivered as a gift.
For a while after the election, it seemed his geniality might insulate him from some of the venom directed at colleagues in the Senate like Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley — even though he, too, defended Mr. Trump’s brazen efforts to overturn the election.
“President Trump won this election, so everyone who’s listening, do not be quiet,” Mr. McCarthy said on Fox News two days after the election. “We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes.”
As the president grew increasingly unhinged, Mr. McCarthy remained faithful. He cynically talked of widespread fraud and signed the amicus brief in a meritless lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court. Even after reportedly pleading with the president to call off the mob that overran the Capitol, Mr. McCarthy voted that night to reject the certification of votes. “It was though they went to an extended lunch and came back and resumed their mission — reinforce, by your votes, the lies of the president,” a visibly irate Mr. Thomas said on TV last week.
Such bona fides do not play well in most of California, where Mr. Trump carried only seven of the 53 congressional districts (Mr. McCarthy’s, still solidly Republican, was one of them). In recent years, as the president became increasingly toxic, many left the party. One who stayed was Joe Rodota, a veteran political strategist who had worked as a top adviser to two former governors, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mr. Rodota didn’t want to be driven out by Mr. Trump. But after the attack on the Capitol, he went and changed his registration to independent. It was no longer about Mr. Trump; it was about the Republican Party, led by people like Mr. McCarthy. In purple Orange County, the number of registered Republicans dropped by around 3,000 in the 10 days after the attack.
In Bakersfield, it is easy to find the legacy of Bill Thomas, called one of the smartest and meanest congressmen of his day: the bust at the entrance to the William M. Thomas Terminal at the Bakersfield airport, the William M. Thomas Planetarium, the Thomas Roads Improvement Program, all named after the man who directed hundreds of millions to local infrastructure.
His protégé made up for his own lack of gravitas by winning popularity contests. In the end, that may be Mr. McCarthy’s only legacy. Colored Starbursts get you only so far. Perhaps someday there will be a plaque in front of the restaurant that now serves Rosa’s traditional Peruvian food, to mark the spot where Kevin O’s Deli was once a corner of a yogurt shop and a 1986 reviewer said “the owner is a really friendly guy.”