Could Romney Private-Sector Resume Trump GOP Foes' Public Service?

Voters to decide whether private-sector success trumps lengthy public service.

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For nearly every other career out there, on-the-job experience tends to be the best way to hone the skills necessary to get ahead. But for politicians, that might not be the case.

That's the message that former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney has been trying to get across, anyway, as he sells his resume to the public for a chance at the White House in 2012. Taking a jab at both President Obama and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, his top foe of the moment in the bid for the GOP's presidential nomination, Romney on Tuesday made sure to highlight his private-sector creds over his competitors' public-sector pasts. "I am a conservative businessman. I have spent most of my life outside of politics, dealing with real problems in the real economy," he said in his speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in San Antonio. "Career politicians got us into this mess and they simply don't know how to get us out!"

For Romney, who dropped from first to second place in national polls after Perry joined the race, this could be a smart way to distinguish himself from the pack of current and former legislators he's up against. [Read about Romney's political odds in the South.]

Lately, as he travels the campaign trail and attacks Obama's jobs policies, Romney's been careful to emphasize his 25 years at Bain Capital, an investment firm based in Boston. While at Bain, Romney was able to make once-struggling small businesses into familiar household names, like the Staples office supply company, for example, or the Sports Authority athletic equipment chain. Compared to Obama, who began his career as a community organizer and law professor before stepping from the Illinois State Senate, to the U.S. Senate, to the White House, or Perry, who has been involved in Texas politics since 1985 and is the state's longest-serving governor, Romney can safely say his quarter century at Bain gives him more years in the private sector than either.

That comparative advantage as a successful, multimillionaire businessman could certainly play well for Romney given the current American political culture, says Thomas Patterson, professor of government and the press at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. "That particular argument probably resonates more in this country with this electorate than it would in a lot of other places, in part because we have such a steep tradition and affection for private enterprise, and we're more skeptical about government. So if there's a bias attitudinally in this country, it's a bias toward the private sector," Patterson says. [Read how Romney's wealth could be a problem for him in the 2012 presidential election.]

But, even with a general affinity for capitalism, it's still unclear whether Romney's type of CEO-style business experience would translate well into the role of the nation's commander in chief. Similarly, it's not at all proven that being a career politician, like Perry, is such a bad thing either. According to Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, being a career politician, as Romney refers to them, could be seen as a major asset for someone seeking the presidency, and especially at a time when legislative politics are as contentious as they are in Washington. "What a career politician understands that someone who's new to politics and unpracticed at it doesn't understand is that we often agree on the goal, but we very rarely agree on the way to get there. So the hard work of politics is getting to a point where we can agree on how to get to a goal that everyone wants," she says. "There are a lot of benefits to having spent a career in politics, [namely] being practiced at the art of bargain or compromise, or becoming an expert in a policy area." [Read more about the 2012 presidential election.]

Not to mention, those coming straight from the private sector have rarely, since the start of the 20th century, made a successful run at the White House. In fact, according to Patterson, the last person to get close was Wendell Wilkie, who won the Republican nomination in 1940. Of course, Romney does have a full four-year term as Massachusetts governor to help him overcome that historical obstacle and segue from the executive boardroom to the Oval Office.