Real-life ‘House of Cards’? Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert weighs in on secret-ballot election

Jeff Zeleny, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

The Fine Print

What would Frank Underwood do?

As House Republicans prepare to go behind closed doors Thursday to select a new majority leader by secret ballot, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert says the election epitomizes the worst kind of politics.

“The most treacherous politics is the palace politics, the inside politics,” Hastert told “The Fine Print.”

“I whipped those inside races, and you would ask a person and make sure you have three commitments from that person at different times, eye ball to eye ball, 'Yes, you're going to vote for me,' and make sure those things are in writing and a name is with it,” Hastert said. “And even then you can't always count it… because when a person votes on a secret ballot, you don't know what they're going to put down.”

House Republicans are selecting a new majority leader in the wake of Eric Cantor’s surprising defeat last week in the Virginia primary. Despite ongoing tensions inside the Republican Party, with Tea Party activists challenging the GOP establishment, the No. 3 Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy of California, is expected to easily win the majority leader’s race. His sole challenger is Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, who has the backing of some Tea Party groups.

Hastert attributes the easy race to the fact that the election was scheduled within a week of its announcement, which he said was a smart calculation by Speaker John Boehner.

“A short race is easier to control,” Hastert said.

Asked about the state of the Republican Party, Hastert described the GOP as being in a “catharsis.” He said the most “dangerous part” of the party’s internal battle is that it prevents Republicans from striking a middle ground on controversial issues.

“People are looking over their shoulder constantly to see who's watching them or who's going to move to the right of them,” Hastert said. One of the biggest consequences is immigration reform, he said, which many Republicans are “reticent” to tackle.

With gay marriage legal in his home state of Illinois, Hastert said it was time for Republicans to accept political reality about the issue.

“You talk to young people today and basically it's something that they accept,” Hastert said. “So I think old folks like me might have some indigestion but I think that's basically the direction this country is heading.”

On Capitol Hill, Hastert’s legacy lives on in the form of the often-quoted “Hastert rule,” which is an unofficial rule developed under his reign as speaker that prevents bills from moving the House floor for a vote if they don’t have majority support from the party in power.

Though Hastert bemoaned the fact that unofficial rule is sometimes mischaracterized today as a stalling mechanism, he said its governing principle is just “common sense.”

“I always said, in that the Hastert Rule came from something, when I said that you have to have the majority of the majority,” Hastert said. “I think every speaker that ever lived really made sure that he had his base behind him.”

For more of the interview with Hastert, check out this episode of “The Fine Print.”

ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Wayne Boyd, and David Girard contributed to this episode.