Terry McAuliffe may face his defining political moment earlier than any Virginia governor in the modern two-party era. He confronts a General Assembly deadlocked on the budget, solely due to disagreement on McAuliffe’s position regarding Medicaid expansion. The new governor favors the “full monty,” demanding that Virginia add 400,000 needy residents to the traditional Medicaid rolls. Virginia Republicans, led by the GOP’s huge House of Delegates majority, oppose any such expansion as unaffordable and threatening to the state’s AAA bond rating.  New governors usually get more time before having to pass such a legacy-making test.  

The only seeming competitor is the state’s first Republican chief executive, Linwood Holton. The boy from Big Stone Gap is best remembered for sending children to integrated schools in Richmond during the busing issue’s heyday in the early 1970s. He also created the modern cabinet system, updating a government structure that had grown antiquated. Virginians owe him gratitude for leading by moral example. But in political terms, he will be best remembered for being a Republican governor who effectively left his party over philosophical differences later in life.

Holton’s predecessor (and successor), Mills Godwin, will be remembered historically as the last segregationist Democratic governor. He jumped to the GOP in 1973 to win a second term. But he did nothing to require history to materially alter its view.

Next came John Dalton, a small-government Republican in the classic mold. He used the veto pen to forge a redistricting plan favorably to the GOP, starting the party on a path toward renewed dominance in the 1990s. The governor’s office then fell to Chuck Robb in 1981, Virginia’s first nonsegregationist Democratic chief executive. By the end of his term, Robb had succeeded in establishing a new, more assertive role for the state government in education policy.

His successor, Democrat Jerry Baliles, got his legacy-defining transportation tax increase early but that fight occurred later in his term than McAuliffe’s battle. Doug Wilder next rose to the governorship. The Democrat left office after laying the groundwork, revolving around an innovative “rainy day” fund, for Virginia’s reputation as the best managed state.

George Allen returned the office to Republican hands in 1994. He spent four years showing Republicans how to defeat Democrats. GOP successor Jim Gilmore squandered Wilder and Allen’s surplus to fulfill a campaign promise. Mark Warner pivoted off that fiscal irresponsibility to win a legacy-defining tax increase in 2004. Tim Kaine proved adroit at managing the state through the Great Recession.

McAuliffe’s immediate predecessor, Bob McDonnell, will sadly be remembered as the first former Virginia governor to be indicted — unless he’s also convicted at trial. Then he’ll be remembered for that.

This leaves the rookie Democrat likely having to make his bit of history far earlier than anyone else.

We applaud Republicans for wanting to protect the state treasury. Who doesn’t? We likewise applaud Democrats for facing another reality: These 400,000 Virginians can’t be legislated out of existence. They are huge financial burden on the state, and health-care providers are now required by law to give them care whether it is paid for or not. Both sides make valid points.

Yet merely expanding Medicaid, without innovative reforms, defies this evidence: Shocking numbers of minority children  currently enrolled in Medicaid don’t get required health care.  They deserve better. Merely extending the status quo would short-change them and Virginia taxpayers.

But Republicans hurt their own credibility by refusing to propose an alternative to “just saying no.” This gives McAuliffe the advantage. A special legislative session this month offers him the opportunity to break the deadlock with a bold new proposal. We have already presented ours. We are confident others can build on it with even better ideas.

We are betting on the governor right now.

Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site BearingDrift.com and producer of the political radio show “The Score.” Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. They are blogging together on All Opinions Are Local during Virginia’s 2014 General Assembly session.