Timothy P. Carney‘s latest Washington Examiner column notes his excitement that some Republican presidential contenders seem to be taking aim at the crony capitalism that flies in the face of free-market principles.

Although the Republicans’ professed belief in free markets would imply a rejection of corporate welfare, GOP cries of “crony capitalism” and critiques of subsidy sucklers and regulatory robber barons usually come only from the party’s back bench. It’s striking, then, to hear this talk from prominent Republicans on center stage at a presidential debate.

It’s part of a small but growing trend toward free-market populism in Republican rhetoric, if not action.

When Gingrich called out General Electric by name for profiting from special tax breaks and green subsidies, he was expressing a growing conservative distaste for GE, which has visibly embraced President Obama’s subsidize-and-regulate economic policy. On everything from climate change and windmills to health care and embryonic stem cells, CEO Jeffrey Immelt has positioned GE to profit from big government, often lending the company’s unmatched lobbying clout to the administration’s efforts.

Obama’s pick of Immelt as jobs czar was a fitting symbol of the symbiotic relationship between the industrial giant and Obama’s agenda. …

… Beneath the rhetoric, sure enough, you can find hypocrisy. Gingrich, when he was in the private sector, lobbied the conservative movement to support the Medicare prescription drug bill that was backed by drugmakers and insurance companies. Govs. Palin and Pawlenty — though they did at times battle the big business lobby — created their share of special-interest tax breaks.

But we free-market populists take whatever drippings we can get, and lip service from prominent Republicans on center stage is an improvement. Important Republicans typically shy away from attacks on big business, presumably for fear of alienating key donors and supporters.