Have you heard the one about the wild White House conspiracy with the press to trip up Republicans on birth control?

If you were watching the debate Wednesday night, you have, because Mitt Romney couldn’t wait to peddle it:

ROMNEY: John, what’s happened — and you recall back in the debate that we had George Stephanopoulos talking out about birth control, we wondered why in the world did contraception — and it’s like, why is he going there? Well, we found out when Barack Obama continued his attack on religious conscience.

It wasn’t a Romney original; conservative talk shows and blogs had been running with the idea for a while. Steve Benen did a good item on this yesterday, but I think it’s worth digging up all the bones on this one.

The idea was, as one conservative blogger said:

There was no active controversy over contraception, it wasn’t in the news, and there were far more pressing political issues.

But then:

Well what do you know, about a month later the Obama administration proposes administrative rules under Obamacare which would require free contraception be provided even by religious institutions which oppose contraception on religious grounds. It’s almost as if Stephanopoulos got the memo first. Unless, of course, you believe in coincidences.

And that’s where Mitt Romney got his conspiracy theory talking point from.

So, was George Stephanopoulos secretly in cahoots with the White House? I have no idea about that, but it’s a great manufactured controversy, isn’t it?

Only thing is: “no active controversy”? Well, putting aside the thirty year war over whether there’s a right to privacy in the constitution, which is the perfectly ordinary but appropriate thing that Stephanopolous was asking about…why, yes, there are several active controversies surrounding contraception. First was the controversy that conservatives suddenly discovered, or pretended to discover, that all the fuss has been about this month. But anyone who was following ACA implementation knew all about that; for example, here’s an op-ed opposing the then-in-progress regulations from back in September.

Second, putting aside the particular issue of religion: Republicans happen to be campaigning on repealing ACA, which has as one of its potentially most popular provisions the requirement that insurance cover contraception. Of course, that’s the general provision that made the Catholic complaint relevant, but again: this is in fact a major issue in the campaign, and was made one by the Republican candidates themselves.

That’s not all! House Republicans and Republicans in various state legislatures spent last year attacking Planned Parenthood. “No active controversy”? That’s a pretty major active controversy. It is possible that some Republicans are oblivious to the fact that many people use Planned Parenthood for birth control, and in fact most women who use Planned Parenthood probably think of it primarily as a place to get birth control (yes, there are other health services there too, but you know, it is in the name of the organization). But just because they’re oblivious about it – if they are – doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

So: there have been at least three overlapping but separate controversies regarding contraception. Do they rate a debate mention? Certainly, ACA repeal does. Again, just because Republicans want to talk about “government takeovers” and, understandably, not the actual benefits to consumers that ACA will produce doesn’t mean that questions about those benefits are somehow off limits.

Regardless; even if none of these things were going on, key Supreme Court doctrines are certainly legitimate fodder for presidential debates questions and always have been. Which is all that the original question was about. Republicans, in my view, would have had a plausible case to make that the way Stephanopoulos asked about the right to privacy and Griswold v. Connecticut, the case that established that right, was tilted against them. But the idea that the question and the general topic were somehow inexplicable in a presidential debate…well, that’s just nonsense.

And for Mitt Romney to bring it up? I’m entirely convinced that far-right and far-left conspiracy theories are basically equivalent, but it’s impossible to imagine a serious Democratic presidential candidate repeating nutty things that came across the email or showed up in the goofier liberal blogs. If anyone can think of an example, please let me know. Republican presidential candidates? It’s practically the bulk of their rhetoric.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.