Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) gave this thoughtful interview to Jonathan Karl of ABC News:

To say that Rand Paul is a controversial figure is a gross understatement, but critics who confuse the father, Ron, with the son and who write the son off as a fringe figure are missing something.

I don’t agree with him that revenue shouldn’t be part of a grand bargain or that defense (the only area of government that has already seen real cuts) should cough up more, but neither do I hear him trying to mount a filibuster. And I do think that if conservative hawks are going to preserve a responsible level of defense spending, they will need to put forth a sound process for reforming Pentagon appropriations, health care, etc.

I have had in the past grave qualms about Paul’s foreign policy views, but I don’t think all of his views lack merit. (“For President Obama to stand up today and insist that Israel should once again give up land, security and sovereignty for the possibility of peace shows an arrogance that is unmatched even in our rich history of foreign policy.”) And while I vehemently disagree with the notion that we should eliminate aid to Israel, he is right when he says, “We currently give about $4 billion annually to Israel in foreign aid. But we give about $6 billion to the nations that surround Israel, many of them antagonistic toward the Jewish state. Giving twice as much foreign aid to Israel’s enemies simply does not make sense. Our aid to Israel has always been to a country that has been an unequivocal ally. Our aid to its neighbors has purchased their temporary loyalty at best. These countries are not our true allies and no amount of money will make them so. They are not allies of Israel and I fear one day our money and military arms that we have paid for will be used against Israel.”

My point on these issues is that conservatives should persuade and discuss areas of difference, but it is a mistake to treat Paul as a clone of his father or a man incapable of maturation. And at a time when thoughtful hawks are revisiting issues like aid to Egypt, his views seem, even to those of us who disagree with his general bent, less wacky.

Moreover, he’s talking sense — a lot of sense — on issues of federalism and immigration reform. On gay marriage and abortion, he’s taken a principled stand (one that I’ve frequently suggested on the marriage issue) that these are matters ideally handled by the states. “We have to let people know, Hispanics in particular, we’re not putting you on a bus and shipping you home. I’m still right there with a lot of the hardcore immigration people who want border troop security. I will insist that border security is first. But I’m also not going to rule out that we can’t figure out an eventual way if you’ve been living here for 10 or 20 years that you can’t become like the rest of us.”

Rand Paul, like many in the Republican Party, has decisions to make about his own role and where the party should go. Will he eschew nuttiness ( his campaign comments on the 1964 Civil Rights Act), become a principled but effective leader and help expand the party in ways that are more likely to attract young and nonwhite voters? If so, fellow conservatives should engage him and heed the positive aspects of his message.

Too often, I think, conservatives jump way ahead (But we wouldn’t want him as commander in chief!) rather than consider where the party sits now, namely in desperate need of innovation and thoughtful conversation. If the party is going to be more inclusive with voters, it can start by recognizing areas of agreement with those on the right (especially those who correctly assess the party’s political challenges and who speak in respectful terms) rather than seek to marginalize them. To do otherwise is to ensure decades of Democrats in the White House.