Many people’s thoughts turn to contraception on Valentine’s Day. But thanks to the election campaign and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, Americans have been thinking about contraception for several days. The ACA mandates provision of contraception by healthcare plans including those managed by Catholic hospitals.

What is the rationale for a mandate in a competitive labor market? The Becker model of discrimination predicts the mandate is unnecessary. Suppose employers choose not to offer contraception benefits in healthcare plans. But talented workers may value these benefits. Then an employer can deviate and offer contraception benefits or a new firm can enter and offer benefits. They can attract individuals who value the benefits, produce higher quality products at lower costs etc. etc. The classic textbook economics model. The mandate requires the contraception benefits be free. But the insurance companies will simply include them in the price they charge for other services. Nothing is really free.

I suppose that if the government simply makes it illegal for any healthcare plan to offer contraception benefits, this argument breaks down. But is any politician advocating this position, even Santorum? Instead, the Republicans run the risk of alienating independent and moderate voters. They have a coherent libertarian style argument against the mandate and have succumbed to a weaker argument. Meanwhile President Obama seems to have “turned a crisis into an opportunity” to use a MBA teaching cliche. According to Andrew Sullivan,

The more Machiavellian observer might even suspect this is actually an improved bait and switch by Obama to more firmly identify the religious right with opposition to contraception, its weakest issue by far, and to shore up support among independent women and his more liberal base….

Take a look at the polling. Ask Americans if they believe that contraception should be included for free in all health-care plans and you get a 55 percent majority in favor, with 40 percent against. Ask American Catholics, and that majority actually rises above the national average, to 58 percent. A 49 percent plurality of all Americans supported the original Obama rule forcing Catholic institutions to provide contraception coverage.

If the GOP really makes this issue central in the next month or so, Santorum (whose campaign claims to have raised $2.2 million in the two days following his victories last week) is by far the likeliest candidate to benefit..—especially since Romneycare contained exactly the same provisions on contraception that Obamacare did before last week’s compromise was announced. That’s right: Romneycare can now accurately be portrayed as falling to the left of Obamacare on the contraception issue. This could very well be the issue that finally galvanizes the religious right, especially in the South. Imagine how Santorum could use that on Super Tuesday. In fact, it could be the issue that wins him the nomination. And do you really think that would hurt Obama in the fall?

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