Beto O'Rourke in El Paso on Thursday. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
Opinion writer

After a week of mourning in the wake of the shooting in his hometown of El Paso, former congressman Beto O’Rourke gave a stirring speech Thursday announcing his return to the presidential campaign trail. This was the Beto of old — before the cover stories, before the counter-hopping, before the weak debate performances. This was the eloquent, impassioned and mature O’Rourke.

He began by retelling moving accounts of responses to the terrorist attack, highlighting the grace, kindness and generosity he witnessed in the aftermath of the mass shooting. He sees in El Paso the answer to divisiveness, racism and xenophobia as well as evidence that immigrants help not only themselves but also this country by coming here. “After this tragedy, we showed how strong we are — and provided an example to the rest of the country of who we can become as America,” he said. Again and again, he came back to the theme that the presence of immigrants here is good for them and great for America.

From there he segued into an indictment of failed institutions: “We have a Congress too craven to act, a democracy not up to the task, complicity from those in public trust.” Like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in his Charleston, S.C., speech, O’Rourke called for a reckoning with our past. “We have a racism in America that is as old as America itself,” he declared. “That is what has happened in this country. We need to acknowledge it if we are ever going to change it.”

He deplored the ready availability of weapons of war that have no place on our streets, calling for background checks, a ban on the sale of assault weapons and a gun buyback program.

The main thrust of his speech, however, was a defense of the idea of America, one that is threatened by President Trump’s actions and rhetoric. He listed the offenses: banning Muslims, telling nonwhite congresswomen to “go back” where they came from, asserting the Charlottesville neo-Nazis included some “very fine” people, describing Mexican immigrants in dehumanizing terms and smiling at a rally when someone in the crowd shouted out that the solution to the immigrant “invasion” was to “shoot them.”

O’Rourke made a compelling case that “what [Trump] says and does doesn’t just offend our sensibility … it changes who we are as a country.” We don’t put kids in cages or see someone drive 600 miles to shoot Hispanics with a manifesto imitating Trump, O’Rourke argued, unless we’ve been given permission to behave that way. And yet our institutions have failed us. “They have been impotent in the face of the greatest threat we have ever known.” He pointed out that where we “give fertile ground for demagogues,” we reap the dangerous results.

He acknowledged the calls for him to come back home to run for Senate, but sternly rejected them. “That would not be good enough for El Paso and it would not be good enough for this country,” he said. “We must take the fight directly to the source — to the person that has caused this pain and peril: Donald Trump.”

And in pointing the finger directly at the president, he seemed to set a new course for his campaign, which had lost direction and focus. However, he said he couldn’t go back to places like the Iowa State Fair (“corn dogs and Ferris wheels”) in a moment of such urgency. Instead, he was going to go to communities where Trump has been “terrorizing and terrifying and demeaning our fellow Americans." He announced, "That is where you will find me and this campaign.” His first step will be Mississippi, where over 600 workers were rounded up and their children traumatized.

On the most basic level, this was O’Rourke at his best as an orator. But from a political perspective, one must ask if you can run for president this way, eschewing early-primary states and going to places far from the normal campaign route.

The answer is twofold. First, it depends how far he takes this. If he still goes to debates and to major events in early states, the time elsewhere likely won’t detract much from his profile, and in fact could boost it. And that brings us to the second consideration: Campaigns are becoming nationalized at an alarming rate, as Trump proved when he dominated the cable TV airwaves in 2016. Iowans and other early-state voters are watching national news. They’ll now see someone who stands out from the crowd, someone more serious and determined than they remember (if they were paying attention at all) from the early days of the campaign.

One point is worth underscoring: O’Rourke has not followed Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) off the far-left cliff. His health-care plan involves the option to buy into Medicaid, his immigration plan does not include decriminalizing illegal border crossings, and his demeanor suggests the promise of change without a revolution. In other words, he’s now a viable, moderate alternative should former vice president Joe Biden stumble.

Finally, we should remember that in a presidential campaign, the unexpected can happen and the winner is often the person best able to respond to current events.

Read more:

Kathleen Parker: Beto O’Rourke’s 2020 campaign is a youthful folly

Stephanie Valencia, Joaquin Castro, Ana Maria Archila, Cristina Jiménez, Luis Miranda and Luis Miranda Jr.: Hispanics in America are under attack

Eugene Robinson: Trump made his visits to Dayton and El Paso all about him

Ed Rogers: Political posturing in the El Paso aftermath is a sorry spectacle

Jennifer Rubin: Cory Booker delivers an impassioned — and impressive — speech in Charleston