The problem with the centrist elite

To the extent an agenda can be gleaned from the impeccably credentialed insiders who form the vanguard for Americans Elect, from Tom Friedman to Mark McKinnon to Christie Todd Whitman, it is a Beltway/Wall Street–approved sensibility more than a program — a consensus of an affluent, cosmopolitan establishment that contentious social issues should be de-emphasized, that the Tea Party’s priorities have too much weight in the Republican party, and that President Obama has failed to summon the nation to an appropriately bold national challenge. The critique of Washington is descriptive — too many pledges, too many organized interests — but weak on details and actual proposals.

As a result, this version of elite centrism has been cryptically ambiguous on a range of policy disputes, from the merits or flaws of more government intervention in the health-care sector, to the balance between individual responsibility and entitlement, to the shape of immigration policy in a strained job market. This centrism is confident of what it doesn’t like — willful indifference to the science of climate change; flat-out refusals to raise taxes — but vague in its response to the erosion of the manufacturing sector and the wage stagnation of blue-collar workers. If elite centrism is troubled by the toll domestic regulations impose in a globally wired economy, or the weight of red tape on small businesses, it doesn’t say so.

On social issues, the silence is even more acute. Should a sweeping judge-made vision of equal protection trump federalism, and the prerogatives of states and communities to promote their own visions of the common good? It’s arguably the pivotal social question after a generation of constitutional rights expanding by non-democratic means, in a society roughly split on touchstones like abortion and gay marriage, but it’s a debate that elite centrism deliberately avoids.