Rand Paul was on CNN, talking about (as they all are) the need for a new kind of Republican. I thought it persuasive that he started with the need to make the party competitive in the Pacific coast and New England, which are obviously vital to its ideological rejuvenation. Also, front and center he put the words “less aggressive foreign policy”–a phrase he used twice in the space of a minute.

Last week, he got himself into a long exchange with Commentary, describing Israel over and over as an ally, but nonetheless one which should be weaned from U.S. aid. I believe he’s wrong about that–I think the U.S. bears a lot of responsibility for the Israel-Palestine tragedy, and can’t responsibly walk away from it. But Paul is trying to square the circle a different way–we wish Israel well, just don’t want to arm it to the hilt. It’s a big improvement over massive unconditional support for Israel, which is the status quo.

But that’s not the critical point, I don’t think. What counts is that Rand Paul is obviously seeking to make foreign policy a central part of the GOP debate about the party’s direction, starting now. No one else is doing that. George W. Bush was treated as an unperson by Romney at the convention and after, but the Romney Republicans still read from a neoconservative script. What a breath of fresh air that Rand Paul is seeking to re-think that script as well.

A “less aggressive foreign policy” is, obviously, no more than a phrase, and not even a catchy slogan. But it stands as a place marker for a rather considerable amount of foreign policy thinking that has been done by realists and noninterventionists both over the past fifteen years. Those thinkers have been drowned out by the neoconservatives, who had Fox and a lot of echo chamber think tanks, but they haven’t been outthought. If Rand is going to take this anywhere, he has to deepen it–to be ready when the next interviewer asks him what he proposes, where specifically he differs with McCain and Graham and Lieberman, and then comes with difficult follow-up questions. But the intellectual foundation is there. Rand Paul will make a big splash as he begins to tap into it.