House of Cards season 4: Experts fact-check the political twists
WARNING: The following contains spoilers from season 4 of House of Cards. Read at your own risk!
Yes, House of Cards is pure fiction. No, Frank Underwood is not one of this year’s real-life presidential candidates. And no, nothing that happens on screen in season 4 is real. But considering the eerie parallels between the political thriller and real life this year — from the KKK connection to the turbulent election — this season in particular could use some fact-checking. Or, at the very least, some research: After all, several moments in these episodes raised red flags. Vice President Claire Underwood? Hmm.
Below, we’ve collected our burning questions about what’s possible when it comes to House of Cards‘ take on American politics and asked Columbia University political science professors Robert Y. Shapiro (not to be confused with the lawyer for O.J. Simpson) and Greg Wawro to break down the facts for each. (Both professors watch House of Cards but did not watch season 4 prior to being asked.) For those curious about how close to reality House of Cards hits, here’s Shapiro and Wawro on this season’s twists:
Can a First Lady really become Vice President?
SHAPIRO SAYS: Yes, with some caveats.“Assuming he gets the nomination, and she wants to be his VP, sure, that’s permitted,” he says. “In principle, yeah, she can be the vice presidential candidate.” The only issue to a First Lady becoming VP? State of residence. Electors will want to see the presidential and vice presidential candidates come from different states — it’s more politically sound to appeal to a larger base. (House of Cards skirts this issue by separating Frank and Claire and establishing Claire’s roots in Texas.)
WAWRO SAYS: Yes, but it’s unlikely voters would approve. “It would probably be unpalatable to the American electorate,” he explains. “This case would smack of nepotism … would you want that [marriage] dynamic in the White House when they’re making tough decisions? Electorally, it would be unfeasible.” Of course, the Underwood marriage isn’t really a marriage — it’s a partnership of power — and they simply have to convince voters they’re capable of moving past marital strife.
If Will Conway wins, his British wife Hannah Conway would become First Lady. Can a First Lady be from another country?
WAWRO SAYS: Of course, as long as it’s not an obvious conflict of interest. There’s nothing written in the Constitution about the First Lady, an unofficial position, or what her citizenship should be. Still, it could have an effect depending on popular opinion. For example, if, during the Cold War, a candidate’s wife were from the Soviet Union, “that would be a different story,” he says. It wouldn’t be a legal issue, but “in terms of how people would perceive her, they would be concerned with undue influence of a foreign enemy power in the White House.” Which means, in House of Cards-land, Hannah passes the test. (Now, she just needs to avoid provoking Claire with questions about having children …)
Is it plausible for a sitting president to throw an open convention for a running mate, when he’s clear about supporting the Secretary of State for the job?
SHAPIRO SAYS: It depends on the party. “He can do that,” he says, “but you need to get into the weeds of what the rules are. It’s the party that establishes the rules, but it’s certainly within the rules to throw it open.” In other words, exactly what Frank Underwood wants to hear.
WAWRO SAYS: Sure — and it’s no surprise House of Cards took this route. “There are rules regarding all sorts of aspects of nominee selection,” he admits, “and one of the things I think House of Cards has been good at is focusing on how institutions and rules can be manipulated in order to produce certain outcomes.”
What happens to a presidential election if an assassination attempt occurs and the president winds up incapacitated?
SHAPIRO SAYS: It comes down to how dire the situation is. The party wouldn’t want to substitute the candidate unless said candidate is completely incapable of running the election; otherwise, the election continues as is. As he puts it, “The election has to occur, and there have to be candidates.” So in a way, for Frank’s campaign, Doug Stamper was simply making sure the show continued to go on.
WAWRO SAYS: Voter sympathy will skyrocket. “There’s a rally-around-the-flag effect whenever there’s some sort of attack like that,” Wawro says. “My sense is that there would be an outpouring of sympathy … that would probably bolster a presidential reelection bid.” In the end, Lucas Goodwin’s efforts were for nothing. (RIP Meechum.)
If a major crisis occurs that requires rival candidates to work together, is that allowed? How often can candidates meet?
SHAPIRO SAYS: Yes. “Basically, anything’s possible,” he says, before adding that a storyline about a hostage crisis interrupting an election is “you know, fiction.” “As candidates, they can do whatever they want,” he explains. “The president can invite anyone to the White House to talk. It’s possible! It doesn’t usually happen during the election.” Good news for the real world, at least, even if the Underwood-Conway partnership against ICO failed in the end.
What is the most accurate scene or story you’ve seen on House of Cards?
SHAPIRO SAYS: The way Frank lost power once he became president. “Frank, when he’s in Congress, seems to be all-powerful. When he becomes president, he’s powerless … He’s able to wheel and deal in certain ways in Congress, and all of a sudden, he’s president and he has negative power,” he says, adding that the character’s season 3 political struggles seemed “plausible.” “I think there’s an irony to it, but there’s truth to it.”
WAWRO SAYS: In season 1, when Frank had to travel back to his district to solve a minor issue about the Peachoid. “There’s the episode where he’s in the middle of negotiating a major education bill, and he had to interrupt those negotiations to go back to his district to take care of this really trivial crisis that had occurred where a teenager died in a car accident because she was texting about a phallic monument in his district,” Wawro recaps. “That is incredibly realistic … That is something members of Congress have to do. Frank cannot have the kind of national power he enjoys unless he has all of his ducks in a row when it comes to the people on the ground in his district.” Something Frank, as POTUS, shouldn’t forget.
House of Cards is streaming on Netflix.
Ballots, betrayal, and barbecue combine in Netflix’s original drama, which stars Kevin Spacey as cunning congressman Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his equally ruthless Lady Macbeth. Based on a 1990 BBC serial of the same name.