Not Running for Majority Leader Is Exactly What Frank Underwood Would Do

How America’s favorite antihero would navigate the Machiavellian plotting around House leadership roles.

Actor Kevin Spacey as Rep. Frank Underwood in the show House of Cards.
National Journal
Lucia Graves
June 12, 2014, 12:01 p.m.

In the days after Eric Can­tor’s de­feat stunned Wash­ing­ton, talk on the Hill has pre­dict­ably turned not so much to which pro­fess­or at Ran­dolph-Ma­con Col­lege will re­place him in the House as to who will fill his lead­er­ship po­s­i­tion with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party.

Top pro­spects already are back­ing away. Jeb Hensarling has an­nounced that he will in­stead be fo­cus­ing on his fam­ily, his dis­trict, and chair­ing the Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, while the de­cidedly am­bi­tious Paul Ry­an, an­oth­er fa­vor­ite for the post, has said he’s just not in­ter­ested in the po­s­i­tion. Funny, that’s ex­actly what the ruth­less prag­mat­ist of House of Cards, Frank Un­der­wood, would say.

People close to Ry­an have noted his de­sire to serve as chair­man of the tax-writ­ing Ways and Means Com­mit­tee. But per­haps more tellingly, he ran as vice pres­id­ent on the Re­pub­lic­an tick­et in 2012, and were he to ap­pear on the tick­et again in 2016, be­ing the party’s des­ig­nated ma­jor­ity lead­er might not be the most stra­tegic po­s­i­tion to be in.

House Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy has the over­whelm­ing sup­port of the party (though Pete Ses­sions is still in the run­ning), and were Ry­an to chal­lenge him for the po­s­i­tion, he’d risk los­ing the lead­er­ship race and ali­en­at­ing mem­bers whose good will could prove pre­cious to him down the road. What’s more, as Un­der­wood would surely note, ma­jor­ity lead­ers make a lot of en­emies do­ing all that horse trad­ing and deal cut­ting, par­tic­u­larly at a time when the GOP is go­ing through so many trans­form­a­tions and re­in­ven­tions.

The irony is that when act­or Kev­in Spacey, who plays Un­der­wood as House ma­jor­ity whip and later as pres­id­ent, was study­ing up for the role, he shad­owed Mc­Carthy on the Hill. Mc­Carthy was “very gen­er­ous” with him, Spacey later told ABC’s George Stephan­o­poulos, adding, “I don’t envy him the po­s­i­tion.”

Mc­Carthy may not have much in com­mon with Un­der­wood’s mer­ci­less per­son­al­ity. In­deed, Mc­Carthy is known for his con­geni­al­ity, and, as he once noted to Busi­ness In­sider, he and his col­leagues “don’t murder an­im­als or mem­bers or any­thing like that.” But it’s also true that if he’s chosen as lead­er, his rise on Cap­it­ol Hill would be un­pre­ced­en­ted. Sound fa­mil­i­ar?

Slate’s Dave Wei­gel re­cently re­marked that he’s grown to hate people say­ing, “It’s just like House of Cards!” whenev­er any­thing de­vi­ous hap­pens. It’s just like polit­ics! And some­times I agree: Art im­it­ates life. But also, as Oscar Wilde has ar­gued, life im­it­ates art far more.

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