By Mark Willen, Senior Political Editor May 19, 2009 CIA Director Leon Panetta caught my attention yesterday when he lamented that the partisanship is as bad as he has ever seen it, a pretty sobering assessment for the man who once served as Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff. Then came an unofficial confirmation in the form of a series of Internet ads attacking some of the people mentioned as possible Supreme Court nominees. The ads weren't substantive but little more than name- calling -- and this before President Obama has even selected a nominee.There's nothing wrong with conservatives getting ready for a confirmation fight by performing early due diligence research on possible nominees. Certainly liberal groups did the same ahead of President Bush's picks. But it seemed to cross a line when they launched the attack ads. Also questionable was the notion, expressed by conservative spokesman Richard Viguerie in a story published Sunday by The New York Times suggesting that the right is salivating at the opportunity to rally its base around a nomination fight and rejuvenate the Republican Party. It's as though the eventual nominee's credentials and philosophy are beside the point. This is a political organizing event. And a big fundraiser to boot. Today the chairman of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele claimed that the Republican Party had turned a corner and was done looking backward. This comes as Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney remain the most visible spokesmen for this "forward looking" approach. Cheney continues to defend interrogation techniques that even the Bush administration abandoned in its second term and Gingrich strives for the most outrageous rhetoric so it will be replayed over and over again on cable TV. It was interesting that the Supreme Court attack stories were played in the newspapers in tandem with stories on Obama's speech to Notre Dame, calling for open minds and more understanding, and the news that he had named Utah Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman, an expert on China, as his new ambassador to Beijing. The Democrats are plenty partisan, too, (and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a lot of explaining to do), but at least one gets the sense that Obama is trying to reach out when he can. Advertisement The stories about Huntsman all described him as a moderate and a leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. But as Politico's Roger Simon points out today, what does it say about the Republican Party if a leading contender is someone no one has ever heard of. A Gallup Poll released last night answers the question, in part. The poll points out that the decline in Republican Party affiliation in recent years has occurred in every major demographic subgroup -- every age, ethnic origin, income level, education level, region -- you name it. The only exception was among frequent church goers, and even there, there was no gain, just holding steady. Panetta, in his thoughtful speech yesterday, did not mention Pelosi by name, although her recent accusations against the CIA were clearly what he had in mind when he deplored the thoughtless partisanship. Reminding everyone that the U.S. is a nation at war and speaking to both parties, Panetta warned that when politicians "start to use these issues as political clubs to beat each other up with, then that's when we not only pay a price, but this country pays a price." That's worth thinking about.