If you had asked me at the beginning of the Republican nomination fight what candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry would say to win, I would have said just about anything. What I couldn’t possibly imagine was that one of the things they might start saying would actually be the unvarnished, unblinking, stand-up-and-clap-for-it truth.

With their eyes set on Bain’s bane and Mitt Romney’s career, Perry and Gingrich have been astonishingly and appropriately brutal. “There’s a real difference between venture capitalism and vulture capitalism,” Perry told Fox and Friends last week. “I don’t believe that capitalism is making a buck under any circumstances.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Gingrich sharpened that point further on Bloomberg.“The question is whether or not these companies were being manipulated by the guys who invest to drain them of their money, leaving behind people who were unemployed,” he said. “Show me somebody who has consistently made money while losing money for workers and I’ll show you someone who has undermined capitalism.” Sing it, Brother Gingrich.

What’s especially ironic about all of this is how much the roles have reversed. Romney, shameless flip-flopper that he is, has stood his ground, while the rest of the Republican field is opportunistically flipping and flopping around him. That, it turns out, is incredibly lucky for the American people, allowing us as clear a picture as we’d ever had of the real Romney just at the moment he’s become the near-presumptive nominee.

His full-throated response to his Republican opponents was deliciously revealing. “In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with [President Obama],” he said during his victory speech in New Hampshire.“This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation. This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy.” He warned that we must not be “dragged down by a resentment of success.”

So that’s what he thinks of the Occupy protests, of the 99 percenters, of the millions of Americans who believe income inequality is a real-life problem and that they deserve a fair shot. According to Romney, they’re just jealous, of him, and of people like him, who concocted rapacious ways to make millions of dollars.

This is what he believes, we know, not just because of these comments, but because of his career at Bain. He’s a man who built a personal fortune practicing a form of predatory, you-are-on-your own brand of capitalism that casts workers into joblessness — by design. And he’s a man who thinks those workers’ grievances are just about his “success” and not the system he intends to propagate from the Oval Office.

And so the country is being offered a rare opportunity: the chance to have a conversation about two vastly different visions for our nation and its economy. On one side, the Romney Economy — a vision of deregulation, of tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, of an assault on the middle class and the poor, and of an attack on the social safety net.

But what will be the other side of that debate? We have, so far, a patchwork of answers: President Obama’s Osawatomie speech, Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’spublic fight for the victims of the big banks, the Progressive Caucus and its People’s Budget, and a nascent, but potent 99 percent movement. Stitched together, they provide glimmers of a coherent, inspired response to the excesses and depredations of the Romney Economy.

The difference between the two isn’t only that one is about nurturing fairness and the other, very clearly, is not. The difference is that Romney capitalism — the kind of “vulture capitalism” represented by Bain and so many chop-shop private equity operations — undermines the strength of our economy itself, and the economy’s ability to work for working people. There is, as even Warren Buffett has pointed out, a real difference between investing and building a company that makes something or provides a service that adds value to the economy, and a barbarian-at-the-gate-style enterprise that loots and strips, making millions for its executives by ripping holes in the economic fabric.

The current rules, as set by lobbyists pushing for tax loopholes and deregulations, have been rigged to allow Romney and his friends to make out like bandits. And so this election doesn’t just turn on whether we will change the rules; it is a question of whether we want one of the actual bandits to be put in charge of our future.

Though it might be odd that such attacks on Romney have originated with Republicans themselves, that they have sparked a national conversation matters a great deal. It allows those who’ve been making the case for years to drive home the critical point that the work of people like Romney is not the stuff of natural free markets; it is the product of a well-funded construct of laws and rules and institutions and values that undermine shared prosperity in a country that once took pride in supporting upward mobility.

There are many smart, concrete, not pie-in-the-sky ideas about how we can recalibrate our economy, return it to fairness, how we can reimagine it as one built not on vulture capitalism but on democratic capitalism. The Nation recently gathered many of those ideas in a special issue, Reimagining Capitalism, laying out alternative ideas for a more humane capitalism that works for communities.

This campaign promises to be an MRI of our economic system. If that sounds unlikely, consider that six months ago, few, if any, political leaders were talking seriously about economic inequality — and today, the king of crony politics, the governor of Texas, is complaining about the immorality of vulture capitalists. A lot can change; a lot already has.