WASHINGTON — Are the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in cahoots with President Bush's reelection campaign? Has Kerry campaign chief Mary Beth Cahill held secret meetings with MoveOn.org to plan that group's media attack campaign? It doesn't matter.
Why not? Because the crafting of political messages is something that modern election campaigns have become very, very good at. The simplicity and effectiveness of such well-honed messages turns the campaign enterprise into something other than it used to be. The importance of the campaign organization itself has waned. Instead, such effective message building means that the election campaign is now a collaborative effort among far-flung groups that never have to talk.
Not unlike the computer world, where there is an arcane holy war going on. It pits those software companies that would like to keep their work completely private (Microsoft, Apple, and others) against a widespread, informal network of computer enthusiasts who have developed a computer operating system called Linux. In many respects, Linux is better than any other system out there - it is simple, stable, and easy to understand. It is also transparent: Nothing about how Linux is built or developed is secret or proprietary. People around the globe are constantly tinkering with it, adding useful features to the basic set of instructions, creating new hybrids and applications, and altering those created by earlier efforts. This informal system of fluid, decentralized, and public software development is collectively known as the "open source" movement.
Because modern election-campaign messages are so well crafted, the resulting campaigns are also open source. At their core is a message that is (like Linux), simple, stable, and easy to understand. The basic strategy is transparent. Independent groups can take over certain electioneering functions. The message is simple, so it's easy to fit outside efforts into an overall strategy without ever needing to coordinate with the home office. MoveOn.org can appoint itself the "Kerry attack machine" just as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth can pick up the "angry pit bull" mantle for the Bush organization, without knowledge or approval of campaign management.
What keeps the open source software movement from degenerating into just another shadowy source of programs that steal identities, hijack innocent web sites, and generally cause mischief? It's a robust set of both written and unwritten norms. Everyone knows the rules. For instance, the popular TV recording service, TiVo, runs on Linux. There are a number of websites devoted to "hacking" TiVo to add features and generally make it more useful. But there is a rule against working on applications that would allow home users to pirate copyrighted movies and make them public. This rule is unenforceable, but it has strong support.
In politics, there aren't any such norms. The stakes seem high enough to justify almost anything. And there is simply no way to curtail the free speech that independent groups are exercising without eviscerating a core freedom we hold dear in America.
So, are we doomed to having politics become just a big tag-team smackdown? Must we endure campaign after campaign in which shadowy groups perform hatchet jobs while campaigns remain blissfully above it all? Is there no countervailing force? Maybe not.
But, election campaigns are unique in at least one key respect: They exist to elect an actual person into office. That person, the candidate, has ultimate authority over the actions of the campaign organization itself, and has immense moral power over those who work - even informally - on his or her behalf. It is up to the candidates themselves to set down the guidelines as to what kinds of help they will welcome, and what kinds of help they don't want.
Either presidential candidate could do this unilaterally, right now. He could say, "I appreciate the desire to move this country in the right direction. But I want to tell all those groups and individuals that seek to help me that my campaign is based on core principles that I do not want violated. I am specifically asking outside groups to make sure their criticisms of my opponent are fair, relevant, and based in truth. I will single out any group violating these principles and repudiate its support."
The opposing candidate would have to follow suit, or else be seen as a dirty trickster.
Would such self-imposed guidelines work? Or would they simply be ignored? It depends entirely on the force and clarity with which the rules are stated. If even a fraction of the effort and thought that goes into message delivery were to go into rule delivery, then they would stick.
Open source campaigning is here to stay. Do the candidates have the moral backbone to fulfill their responsibility and demand fair campaigning from their own partisans? Do they have the guts to take their supporters to task?
They haven't yet. But there's still time before the debates.
• Brad Rourke is a consultant who works on public issues and ethics.