An opinion piece in today's New York Times confirms something we already sort of knew: mandatory paid leave after the birth of a child is likely to be a hot button issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.

The article, by Bryce Covert, an economic editor at ThinkProgress, a far-left website, traces the nation's family leave policies so far through the maternal history of one family, the Clintons, starting with current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's announcement to Little Rock's Rose Law Firm in 1980, at a time when almost no organizations in the U.S. offered maternity leave, that she was taking four months off because she was about to be a mother. Covert writes:

Flash forward to 2014, when Chelsea Clinton was herself about to become a mom. By that point, every company on Working Mother’s top 100 list offered fully paid maternity leave. Chelsea herself has said that she took advantage of the Clinton Foundation’s three months of paid maternity leave. Her husband also got some time off from his work.

When Hillary Clinton was pregnant, the country didn’t even guarantee employees the ability to take unpaid time off when a new baby arrived, which meant new moms risked their jobs just to recover from birth. The Family and Medical Leave Act didn’t become law until 1993.

Let's leave aside the unintended humor of citing Chelsea as just a another working mom working for just another employer! The article correctly notes that for the first time in presidential politics all Democratic candidates for the presidency "openly" support paid leave. As for Republicans, Covert condescendingly adds:

Republicans have different ideas — but they do at least have ideas. Mr. Rubio’s plan would give businesses a tax credit for offering paid family leave; Republicans in Congress have backed a bill that would allow workers to trade in their earned overtime hours for time off to be with a new child. Representative Paul Ryan, the new speaker of the House, has even been outspoken about his need for work-family balance and the need for families around the country to find balance as well.

We're in favor of flexibility for working mothers. Who isn't? But we want to clarify the primary difference between plans put forward by Republicans and those advocated by Democratics. You can get a glimpse of it in Covert's terminology: when Hillary Clinton took maternity leave, Covert writes, "the country didn't even guarantee employees the ability to take unpaid time off when a new baby arrived."

But it is not "the country" that actually "guarantees" time off, paid or unpaid. It is the employer. The legislature of "the country" makes a rule, but the employer is the one who assumes the financial obligation. It is the employer which must be able to pay for the benefit and remain solvent.

Democratic paid leave legislation involves mandating what an employer must do, regardless of the employer's actual ability to do so, and creating a new entitlement of massive proportions, while GOP plans involve making it attractive and feasible for an employer to offer a paid leave program. The Democrats want to wave a magic wand, while conservatives want to set up a realistic system that, while not making paid leave mandatory, makes it more practical for a company to offer it.

Most Americans are in favor of mothers being able to take time off after having a new baby. Sometimes there are hardships for a new mother. But, as my colleague Carrie Lukas has noted in Forbes magazine:

Of course, just because there is real hardship doesn’t mean that government action is going to solve the problem.  Conservatives need to do the hard work of explaining the real trade-offs that come with government employment mandates.  After all, these laws don’t give employees a new benefit.  Rather they outlaw a whole universe of employment options.  Workers who would prefer more take-home and fewer benefits are the big losers from one-size-fits-all, government-imposed employment contracts.  And in fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today, more than thirty percent of a worker’s total compensation goes to provide benefits.  That may be fine for some, but others may happily trade those benefits for a 30 percent increase in take-home pay.  Moreover, Americans have recently seen how employers react to such regulations with ObamaCare, as business convert some employees into part-timers or try to consolidate their workforce in order to avoid the law’s mandates.

That’s why government should only intervene in employment contracts for a very compelling reason, and should seek to do so in the least disruptive way possible.  As I wrote in the YG Network’s book, Room to Grow, if the public believes it is necessary for government to do something to help ensure that workers have enough paid time off, then that intervention should at least be targeted to those most likely to really need assistance, such as lower-wage workers.  I suggest that one could use the EITC as a model, and make that tax credit payment available at the time leave is needed.  This would provide lower-income leave takers with income support, but without changing their work incentives.  Abby McCloskey suggested in Forbes that we could also look at using the existing Unemployment Insurance system or disability systems as an alternative approach to provide leave support, which are options certainly worth exploring.

Republican Senator Deb Fischer from Nebraska has joined with Independent Senator Angus King of Maine to put forward a proposal to help companies voluntarily provide paid leave. The Strong Families Act, sponsored by Fischer and King, would create a tax credit to for employers of any size to provide paid family or medical leave. There are no mandates in the legislation.

Democrats should have learned how well mandates work in the real world through ObamaCare, a system of mandates that appears to be unsustainable when applied to real life situations. But they haven't learned and the GOP candidate had better be able to explain why mandates, in the end, are not the way to get the best for working mothers.