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Running As a Businessman Could Be Romney's Curse

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Mitt Romney has based nearly his entire presidential campaign on his experience as a businessman. "I spent my career in the private sector," Romney told Fox News in late November. "I think that's what the country needs right now."

Romney has said roughly the same thing hundreds of times since. Indeed, there are campaign appearances in which he dwells on his experience as a private equity consultant and does not even mention that he was once governor of Massachusetts.

Romney and his campaign aides have made the calculation that an I-know-how-to-crea te-jobs appeal will work in today's difficult economy. But his strategy raises a question: How often have American voters chosen a businessman as president?

They didn't when they elected Barack Obama, who had zero experience in business.

They didn't when they elected George W. Bush, a failed oilman whose family connections helped win him a stake in a professional baseball team, which provided him the fortune he needed to enter politics and run for president on the strength of his record as governor of Texas.

They didn't when they elected Bill Clinton, who almost never held a nongovernment job.

They didn't when they elected George H.W. Bush, whose extensive experience in government service was the basis for his appeal.

They didn't when they elected Ronald Reagan, whose career as an actor was the backdrop to a life spent building the conservative movement -- and serving two terms as governor of California.

Jimmy Carter used his business as a peanut farmer as part of his campaign pitch, but he also stressed a broad range of experience -- including a term as governor of Georgia -- and, above all, his integrity in a post-Watergate campaign.

No one elected Gerald Ford president, but if they had, it would not have been on the basis of a career in business.

The voters didn't elect a businessman when they chose Richard Nixon.

They didn't when they elected Lyndon Johnson.

They didn't when they elected John F. Kennedy.

They didn't when they elected Dwight Eisenhower.

They didn't when they elected Harry Truman.

They didn't when they elected Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The last president elected as a businessman was Herbert Hoover in 1928, and even he relied on a campaign b iography that included a Cabinet post and a high-profile stint as relief organizer. "Hoover's appeal, before his reputation became tarnished by the Depression, was as a problem solver and a solid businessman," says Princeton University historian Fred Greenstein. "Someone who was not erratic -- to the point of being dull."

Certainly businessmen have tried to win the presidency. Ross Perot ran on his business experience and won 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992. Wall Streeter Wendell Willkie made a strong run against Roosevelt in 1940. But it's safe to say that running as a businessman has not been a sure-fire route to the White House.

"Business skill and political skill are qualitatively different," says Steven Hayward, author of the two-volume biography "The Age of Reagan." "They do not transfer well into the other domain."

On the stump, Romney has stressed h is business past more than his governing experience, in part because many in the Republican base don't like what he did in Massachusetts. They don't like Romneycare, they don't like the strongly pro-choice platform he ran on for governor in 2002, and they don't like his handling of issues involving gay marriage, global warming and guns.

If Romney makes it through the Republican nomination process, he will likely be able to talk about his Massachusetts experience a bit more in a general election campaign. But even if that happens, he has already established himself as the businessman candidate.

Rival Newt Gingrich has argued that his own government experience is more valuable than Romney's time in business. "With all due respect to Gov. Romney, there is an enormous difference in our understanding of both how to move the nation and how to actually get things done in Washington," Gingrich told a Florida crowd in late January. "We need someone who knows enough about Washington to know how to change Washington."

Gingrich has struggled in the campaign, but of all the things voters might hold against him, having spent a career in government doesn't seem to be one of them. Still, given today's economic worries, plus anti-Washington sentiment in the electorate, Romney is hoping this might be the moment for a businessman candidate. That hasn't happened in a long, long time.

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