The cliche: "This president is a crony capitalist. He's a job killer," said Mitt Romney today. It's a seemingly odd application of one of the Democrats' favorite attacks on George W. Bush. But the barb is enjoying something of a reclamation among Republican candidates this season. As the Boston Globe notes, Romney simply seems to be picking up the baton where Michele Bachmann dropped it. Indeed, her repeated use of the phrase in speeches and writings seems to be the example from which other Republican are drawing. She'd called Rick Perry a "crony capitalist," and in one op-ed, she uses the term three times to characterize Washington. Even Sarah Palin gave the ultimate compliment by picking up the "crony capitalist" attack on Perry, and attributing it to Bachmann.
Where it's from: The "alliterative gem," as William Safire calls it, got its first traceable use in a 1981 Time magazine article by John DeMott about the president of the Phillipines, according to Safire. It refers to the practice of achieving success in a capitalist business environment by relying on favoritism and special treatment from political powers. A search of Google books suggests that the Enron scandal elevated it to something of a cliché, but it's never had more exercise than during the Bush administration, where accusations revolving around Cheney's relationship with energy companies and contractors selected for Iraq War jobs made it a favorite Democratic attack. Odd then, that it's since migrated to the Republican playbook, a move which Tim Noah at The New Republic says seems to trace back to a 2010 usage from John Stossel of Fox News
Why it's catching on: Well, the surface reasons are easy to derive from candidates' speeches. The Obama administration's federal contract with Solyndra and its subsequent bankruptcy seem to have been the major origin of the attack, as a search of Google news shows. And for Republican-on-Republican accusations, you'll see most of them seem to be aimed at Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, both of whom have long careers in government, and thus, long lives filled with potential for awarding contracts and things to their friends.
Why else: And yet, it seems weird, at first glance, for Republicans to accuse Obama of anything involving the word "capitalist" and not "socialist." (Though Bachmann happily accused Obama of that too, as recently as her concession speech yesterday.) The accusation has more to do with the abuse of power -- focus on "crony" not "capitalism" -- than any ideological tendency. And now that a Democrat is in power, he has to answer for the accusations of favoritism that almost inevitably will come about. Fueling it, of course, is the Republican party's move away from Bush -- add "crony capitalism" to the list of reasons George W. Bush doesn't come up much in the Republican campaign -- and toward an emphasis on deregulation and restricted government. That's thanks of course to the Tea Party.