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Romney Rewrites Bush's Small-Business Legacy

Small business made an appearance in Tuesday's second presidential debate where we least expected it. An undecided voter in the audience asked Governor Romney how he distinguished himself from the last Republican president, George W. Bush. One of those ways, it turns out, is his full embrace of small businesses:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

"And then let's take the last one, championing small business . Our party has been focused on big business too long. I came through small business. I understand how hard it is to start a small business. That's why everything I'll do is designed to help small businesses grow and add jobs. I want to keep their taxes down on small business. I want regulators to see their job as encouraging small enterprise, not crushing it."

(Read more: Revisiting President Obama's Small-Business Tax Cut Claims )

That bit of news probably comes as a surprise to Mr. Bush, who somewhat famously said, before he was elected, "I understand small-business growth. I was one." Mr. Bush started an oil and gas exploration company before forming an investment partnership that bought the Texas Rangers. Mr. Romney's assertion might also come as a surprise to Hector Barreto, Mr. Romney's ambassador to the Hispanic vote and the administrator of the Small Business Administration during most of the Bush administration. In an interview with this reporter in 2006, Mr. Barreto cited Mr. Bush's business experience as the reason his boss was "passionate" about small businesses. "I believe that the biggest champion of small business is the president of the United States, " Mr. Barreto said. "I don't remember any time in my lifetime where I've heard a president of the United States talk as much about small business as he does."

A further irony here is the way that Mr. Romney expressed this distinction from Mr. Bush — suggesting that he, unlike the former president, "came through small business." It may strike some as a bit of a stretch to say that Mr. Romney's Bain pedigree amounts to more of a true small-business experience than Mr. Bush's oil and gas ventures.

A similar issue arose during Mr. Romney's 2008 White House run when the candidate occasionally called himself an entrepreneur. But as The Agenda (in an earlier incarnation) noted at the time, drawing on reporting by The Boston Globe, much of Mr. Romney's tenure suggested the opposite of the risk-taking that most people associate with entrepreneurship. He risked little to start the company (his boss promised him his old job, with salary increases, if the new venture failed), and the business model shied away from investing in young companies. Quoted in the Globe article, Mr. Romney said, "I didn't want to invest in start-ups where the success of the enterprise depended upon something that was out of our control, such as 'Could Dr. X make the technology work?' "

In any case, Mr. Bush's and Mr. Romney's approaches to small business seem pretty similar — essentially lower taxes and fewer regulations. It's an odd place to draw a distinction.

Email us at SmallBiz@cnbc.com and follow us on Twitter @ SmallBizCNBC.

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