Dana Milbank: So this is how Paul Ryan leaves office? With lies and racism?

Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., laughs as he listens to President Donald Trump speak during a meeting with Republican lawmakers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Washington • So this is how retiring House Speaker Paul D. Ryan wishes to leave public service: with lies, name-calling and racism?

The fall general-election season has begun, and the $100 million Congressional Leadership Fund, which Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, and his House GOP leadership team endorse and raise money for, has released a flurry of ads in recent days that leave no room for misinterpretation: It intends to make the election a series of personal attacks, largely devoid of policy.

Consider what the CLF super PAC, the dominant player in the GOP's campaign to defend its majority in the House, has done in recent days:

A racist ad released Wednesday in Upstate New York has doctored images showing Democratic congressional candidate Antonio Delgado, an African American, rapping. It says he has “extreme New York City values” and shows an image of two white people who would pay “higher taxes” if he has his way. “He’s still New York City’s voice, not ours,” it says of Delgado — a Rhodes scholar and Harvard Law School graduate. CLF did this despite complaints about racism in previous versions of the ad.

A week earlier, CLF offered a similar attack on Aftab Pureval, an Indian Tibetan Democrat running in Ohio. CLF's ad accused Pureval of "selling out Americans," and said "Pureval's lobbying firm made millions helping Libya reduce payments owed to families of Americans killed by Libyan terrorism."

Pureval, fresh out of law school, didn't work on the Libya settlement, which, in any case, was blessed by President George W. Bush.

On Thursday, the CLF group attacked former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger, a Democratic candidate in Virginia, because she “taught at an Islamic school nicknamed ‘Terror High,’ a terrorist breeding ground” and “cashed her paychecks like nothing was wrong.” Spanberger was a substitute English teacher at the school in 2003 — long before there were “Terror High” allegations and before her career serving in the CIA’s clandestine service.

This came after a group hired by CLF used a Freedom of Information Act request to receive Spanberger’s federal security-clearance questionnaire — which had been improperly released by the government.

Also Thursday, the GOP leadership-aligned group attacked Tom Malinowski, a former Obama administration official running for Congress in New Jersey. Malinowski "criticized America for waging war on al Qaeda," it alleged, based on a 2007 opinion piece he wrote for The Washington Post that argued nothing of the sort.

No longer just the party of Donald Trump, Republicans sound like they are Donald Trump. And their strategy amounts to an extraordinary acknowledgment of failure: After two years of undivided control of Congress and the White House, and eight years of GOP legislative majorities, Republicans cannot come up with a single policy achievement — on taxes, health care, regulations or anything else — that they believe will resonate with voters.

Republicans had intended to make the tax cut the centerpiece of their campaign, but they discovered in the Pennsylvania special election and elsewhere that this didn't work. Now, saddled with a deeply unpopular president, they have decided their only avenue is the low road.

A Ryan political aide described CLF as "an outside group" that the speaker can't legally direct. That's true. But it is a political force because of his fundraising, and the ads would stop immediately if he publicly denounced them.

CLF has done most of the advertising so far, but the National Republican Congressional Committee and individual candidates have shown a similar inclination for attacking the personal over policy. One of the few NRCC ads goes after a Pennsylvania Democrat for late payment of property taxes.

In recent days, the CLF group:

• Accused an Illinois candidate of “fraud” and alleged the “shady” man “profited from insider deals.”

• Accused a New Jersey candidate of “cheating on his taxes” and taking “an illegal $70,000 tax break.”

• Charged a New York candidate of being in a corruption “racket.”

All of these allegations were false or, at best, misrepresentations.

Among the other topics of recent ads: one featuring a chemotherapy drip saying the Democrat was "so heartless he fired a female employee after she received cancer treatment," and one touting a contested allegation of sexual harassment.

CLF also tried to tar several Minnesota candidates with domestic abuse they had nothing to do with. They were denounced for failing to demand that Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., accused of abuse, end his campaign for state attorney general.

If Ryan goes out this way, it would be a shameful end for the speaker — and could well be a deserved end for a Republican majority that has nothing positive to say about what it has done.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post op-ed columnist. He sketches the foolish, the fallacious and the felonious in politics. Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.