“Political courage” is among the most overused and misused terms in political conversation. The idea that anything involving a well-paying, high visibility job with a good salary, plenty of perks and continual (if unearned) praise could be “courageous” is a bit of a stretch, especially in a time of real and extraordinary courage from people in all walks of life, especially those in our military (every one of whom volunteered).

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks during the Berkeley Forum on the UC Berkeley campus on March 19, 2014 in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

That said, we should not fail to distinguish between, shall we say, principled risk taking and timidity or simple pandering. When the shutdown squad claimed they were being politically courageous you had to laugh (or gag). That stunt was cat nip for their base and the avenue to nonstop TV coverage. When Senate Republicans defied their base to vote for immigration reform or House Republicans tried to reform Medicare — and both got slammed — that was political courage, such as it is.

We’ve seen lately one very clear example of each. I am gratified that smart lawyer and now Berkeley law professor John Yoo finds as we did, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) practicing the art of pandering, not political defiance:

Senator Paul is drunk on the publicity of pulling a stunt like speaking in Berkeley as a libertarian Republican. He’s getting a lot of praise for venturing into the lion’s den (as it were). . . . Paul was clever to raise the single issue on which his extreme libertarian views would find a sympathetic reception from a young crowd who were about anywhere from five to eight years old at the time of the 9/11 attacks and believe they have more to fear from the NSA wiretapping their smartphones (for what possible purpose?) than another terrorist attack. He did not raise other views, such as his opposition to abortion or gay marriage, that would have found him booed off the stage. He could have pressed opposition to Obamacare, on which the interests of the young really do coincide with the Republican party, but he did not because that might not have been popular.

Nor does it take courage to tell the New York Times all about it.

What does involve risk-taking and putting principle over personal advancement (or job security) is to take on an issue like immigration reform or entitlement reform for which one side or the other in the political debate (maybe both!) will skewer you. And if you are a Republican with any presidential ambitions, then you really better watch out. The same is certainly true of any issue involving race that does not rest on liberal premises (e.g. we have yet to have a honest discussion of it, racism is as bad as ever). So when Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) raised the unoriginal point that social structure, family breakdown and environment are essential to understanding and addressing poverty he was swiftly labeled a racist.

The assault on Ryan from the left and from home state constituents’ is instructive. Replying to the insinuation at a townhall meeting that he’d starve people, Ryan coolly denounced ad hominem attacks (“It’s really kind of amazing. You know, we’re really not going to have a good, adult debate on these issues if we keep impugning people’s motives, and if we keep calling people names, and if we keep throwing baseless charges at each other.”)

And then went on to reiterate his point:

I’m actually very proud of the work that I have been doing on poverty in the past year and earlier in my life. And what I sought to do a year ago was, knowing that the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty was coming up and knowing that those results are just like you said—the highest poverty rate in a generation, 46 million people in poverty, child poverty as you said, deep poverty is the highest on record—we should ask ourselves, “Is what we are doing working?” And we should say: “No, it’s not.” . . .

So we, in the House Budget Committee, decided to go out and find out what . . . does the federal government do? How much are we spending? And what are the outcomes? What literature is out there that analyzed these programs—like audits, Inspector General reports, and GAO reports? and then get a good accounting on what it is we’re doing to measure the status quo. Because you can’t reform these programs if you don’t even know what they’re doing. And so my argument is, if we take a look at the status quo, there are a couple of takeaways: Number one, we have been measuring our poverty-fighting efforts based on inputs—based on how much money we spend on programs, not based on outcomes: How many people are we getting out of poverty? Number two, we need to have a different approach that goes at severing the root cause of poverty. Go address the root causes of poverty, and don’t just treat the symptoms of poverty and try to make poverty more sustainable. Because the goal here, like you just said, is to break the cycle of poverty.  . . .

The point I’m trying to make is we have to drop this idea that government is the only needed thing here. Government has a huge and important role to play in fighting poverty, but it’s not the only role. Civil society, charities, people have got to step up to make a difference here so that we can get people in poverty on an on-ramp, a bridge, to a better life, and so we can break the cycle so that kids are not growing up in multi-generational poverty, which has been plaguing this country.

The last point I’ll make is this: that government has inadvertently created all these barriers to work. I was just going through these CBO documents that say just because of Obamacare, the equivalent of 2.5 million less jobs will be done by the end of the decade because of the disincentives to work because of this health-care program. Employers are cutting the work week from 40 hours to 29 hours because the work week is now 30 hours full time, not 40 hours. So there’s one law where the government said cut people down from 40 hours to 29 hours. That doesn’t help you get out of poverty. This law is saying, “If you go to work, you’ll lose more.”

The guy who was pictured in ads literally throwing a grandmother off a cliff (for trying to reform Medicare) will now be the left’s “racist” and be grilled on it wherever he goes.

Unlike some fair weather friends on immigration who raised the issue (and even went to donors to pitch their interest on the issue) and then ran away, Ryan should hang in there, making his arguments to whomever will listen. In fact, he should go to Berkeley. That might really impinge on their assumptions about Republicans.