A separate peace

With debates on Medicaid expansion looming, McAuliffe’s bipartisan tranquility is likely to be short-lived

In a purple state like Virginia, the men and women in Richmond too often take their cues from nearby Washington: we have the same kinds of dysfunction and partisanship (outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell’s gifts scandal is one example), but everyone’s playing for lower stakes.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe was sworn in Saturday, with his friends Bill and Hillary Clinton standing behind him (literally, not figuratively, in this case). With the victories of McAuliffe, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, Democrats hold the three major statewide offices for the first time in 20 years. The last Democratic trifecta ended in 1994 with the close of Gov. Douglas Wilder’s term. At that time Don Beyer, a Democrat, was lieutenant governor; Mary Sue Terry, the Democrat attorney general, resigned to run for governor but lost to George Allen. In the 20 years after Wilder, Republican trios held the state offices twice: between 1998 and 2002 and again between 2010 and 2014.

Although Democrats swept the executive races, Richmond hasn’t gone solely blue. McAuliffe faces a Republican-dominated legislature. Of the 100 members of the House of Delegates, 67 are Republicans.

McAuliffe’s inauguration speech called for harmony and cooperation between the two parties, as such speeches often do. Consensus was the speech’s dominant theme: “Common ground doesn’t move towards us,” McAuliffe said; “we move towards it.”

And McAuliffe has tried, in visible ways, to move toward common ground in the weeks since he was elected. The former Democratic fundraiser has selected a moderate cabinet that features several holdovers from McDonnell’s administration, including Richard Brown as secretary of finance, William Hazel as secretary of health and human resources, and Todd Haymore as secretary of agriculture.

McAuliffe, known for his people skills, might be able to smooth partisan tensions and work with even an overwhelmingly Republican House. And we wish him success in doing so.

But to us, these early weeks look like a perfect storm of partisan furor—not a new chapter in Virginia politics. Despite McAuliffe’s attempts to lay the groundwork for bipartisan cooperation, a shadow is on the horizon: Medicaid expansion.

The question of Medicaid expansion is intensely divisive. For Republicans, opposition to Medicaid expansion is a way to protest the Affordable Care Act—to avoid complicity in what many conservatives view as a disastrous set of reforms. Opposition to Medicaid expansion is also borne out of fiscal worries: some Republicans think the program is simply too expensive, and they’re scared Virginia, not the federal government, will end up footing the bill.

For Democrats, Medicaid expansion means that many low-income Virginians will be able to receive health coverage. They also think that billions of dollars of Medicaid money from Washington would create jobs in health care and related fields, and do much for the state’s economy.

Virginia will expand Medicaid or it will not: the possibility of compromise, of shifting the terms of agreement, does not seem to apply here. Thus Medicaid expansion threatens the façade of a bipartisan government—Democrats in the executive branch, Republicans in the legislature—and reminds us of the too-familiar downside of divided government: deadlock.

At his inauguration, as McAuliffe spoke about solidarity between red and blue, rain fell. A harbinger of things to come?

Published January 13, 2014 in FP test, Opinion

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