I’ll admit, I’ve quickly gotten hooked on Netflix’s new original series, House of Cards, which has become a Capitol Hill sensation overnight. The show portrays fictional Democratic House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as he schemes to amass power. On the show, Underwood runs his caucus with an iron fist, (literally) beats the leader of the teachers union into submission, and handpicks a drug-addled lackey to run for Pennsylvania governor.
But the show has one glaring flaw – it reflects a Washington of years past that couldn’t be more unfamiliar to the leadership-less capital of today. President Obama’s relationship with the legislative branch has become so poor that the White House is telegraphing that it will pass most of the president's agenda by executive order and bypass Congress entirely. On his signature gun-control proposal, Obama can’t even pressure Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to bring up all of his proposals. And by the way, there are no more moderate Southern Democrats like Underwood left to push a more-liberal president to the center, as the fictional lawmaker does on education reform. It wasn’t long ago that Blue Dog Democrats were the major power center on Capitol Hill.
On the GOP side of the aisle, the disunity is even worse. House Speaker John Boehner routinely struggles to manage his Republican Caucus, Karl Rove is taking not-so-friendly fire from the conservative grassroots, and the real House majority whip, laid-back California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, is more likely to use carrots than sticks when whipping his fractious caucus for votes. It almost makes party veterans pine for the days of Tom DeLay, the most plausible parallel to Spacey’s character.
But the days of DeLay arm-twisting backbench Republicans to support a prescription-drug entitlement in the middle of the night are long gone. GOP leaders have sworn off earmarks, the time-tested way to persuade recalcitrant members to vote for favored legislation. These days, two different Republican senators and two prospective 2016 presidential rivals -- Marco Rubio and Rand Paul -- gave competing responses to President Obama’s State of the Union. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may be politically savvy and a force to be reckoned with, but he held little power to dissuade his junior colleague from Kentucky from stepping on the GOP’s message.
For better or worse, power in Washington is as decentralized as it ever has been. In the age of the super PAC, outside groups have usurped power from the party campaign committees. Former Sen. Jim DeMint arguably is more influential as the head of the Heritage Foundation than Sen. Jerry Moran is heading the GOP’s Senate campaign committee. It’s the outsider Senate candidate with minimal background in Washington, not the recruit handpicked by the Democratic National Committee, who now has the inside track to victory. Obama was able to hurdle normal wait-your-turn obstacles to defeat the establishment favorite in the primary and cruise to victory. Rubio could very well be following a similar path – running as much on image and force of personality than on building political chits -- as he mulls over a presidential campaign for 2016. And Paul, the ultimate outsider, could be a much more plausible national contender, than many folks expect.
Even when it comes to scandal, powerful leaders are usually powerless to push aside compromised members of Congress. In the Netflix show, Underwood provides coke-snorting Russo with a lifeline after he arrives at his house drugged out -- and pressures him to attend AA meetings in exchange for aiding his bid for Pennsylvania governor. When Anthony Weiner accidentally tweeted out lewd photos, he babbled on national television and lingered long after he had made himself a national laughingstock. Currently, Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais is still hanging around the halls of Congress, even after revelations emerged that he cheated on his wife with two of his patients, and urged one to get an abortion. But Republican leaders are hardly attempting to pressure him to step down, or even to deprive him of committee assignments, knowing how futile those efforts would be.
Ironically, the emerging congressional leaders are ones that draw attention as much through the force of their ideas as their political muscle. Rep. Paul Ryan, despite not serving formally in the House GOP leadership, played a bigger role in persuading conservative Republicans to back a fiscal-cliff compromise than his higher-ranked colleagues. His budget blueprint set the tone of the political debate throughout the 2012 campaign, before he was tapped as Mitt Romney’s running mate. Rubio is paving a similar path on immigration reforms. There’s not a whole lot of high-mindedness in the Washington portrayed on House of Cards.
Despite the show’s flaws, I’m still a huge fan. It pays close attention to detail, from the meticulous set to its ample references to the “D-C-C-C” and other only-in-Washington acronyms. Pennsylvania Rep. Peter Russo is a dead ringer for former Rep. (and presidential candidate!) Thad McCotter, as the Daily Caller’s Alex Pappas first pointed out. But on the show's central premise, that power in Washington flows from the top, the writers missed out on just how much D.C. has changed in the past decade.