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)

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.