If the naming of Edwin Meese as attorney general signals a move by President Reagan to the center, it is to the center of Mr. Reagan's own conservative view of politics and the law. It is not a move to the national political center, or even to the center of the Republican Party.
Ed Meese is the quintessential Reagan man. For the Senate in confirmation hearings to reject Mr. Meese as the replacement for William French Smith, who is resigning, would be to deny a President the right to have his own views reflected in his Cabinet.
Meese, as White House counselor the past three years, has overseen the development of Justice Department policies on a wide range of issues. Many of these are controversial. They include an antitrust philosophy which asserts that ''bigness in business does not necessarily mean badness''; a civil rights approach that opposes past remedies such as school busing and racial quotas; an anti-abortion/pro-life policy that has sought to override parental and health officials' decisions and to compel medical treatment for children; a status quo if not restrictive view of women's rights, most recently manifested in the administration's reported intention to challenge a Washington State ruling demanding equal pay for women holding jobs comparable to those held by men.
And there's more. Meese, former director of the Center of Criminal Justice and Management at the University of California, San Diego, has long taken an interest in criminal law. He is comfortable with the administration's emphasis on limitations of criminals' rights. Ditto limitations on press freedom, from White House efforts to stop leaks to the current attempt to impose ''prior restraint'' on publication of a post-trial court opinion critical of three Justice Department prosecutors. Also, ''secrecy'' rulings that would restrict future public writing by individuals with past national-security clearances.
Obviously, in such matters there will be plenty of grist for a contentious nomination hearing for Meese.
If this isn't enough, the Senate will also want to consider what it means to have as attorney general an individual so close to a president personally, ideologically, and politically. There have been occasions recently enough when the nation's top law enforcement official has had to differ from the President on fundamental matters of probity and authority.
Ed Meese is an articulate Reagan loyalist. His selection suggests Mr. Reagan, on social issues, intends no shift to the center in the 1984 campaign.
It means too that the defeat of Republican moderates, begun with Reagan's wresting the nomination from George Bush in 1980, continues in full force in 1984. GOP moderates generally are defined by more liberal views on social issues like civil rights, the environment, and relations with Europe and the Soviets.
Mr. Bush himself, unlike the activist vice-presidency of Walter Mondale, has been left to explore new norms for vice-presidential obscurity.
Reagan not only did not choose the in-house alternative to Meese, White House chief of staff James Baker, a Bush ally who openly coveted the post, but he made no pretense of openly searching for new talent or of considering a candidate from the GOP center.
What will the President get in Ed Meese? Meese will be a more public figure that Mr. Smith, who avoided controversy. A one-time debater, Meese can relish confrontation. This can get him into trouble, as when he recently argued there is only ''anecdotal'' evidence of hunger in the United States. He is responsible for other public relations miscues; it was Meese who failed to disturb the President's vacation slumber after the shooting down of the Libyan fighter jet.
Meese, too, stood at the center of the Reagan 1980 campaign flare-up that led to the ouster of campaign director John P. Sears. It was charged that Meese's policy and positions operation failed to keep the candidate well enough prepared. But Reagan kept Meese, whatever the unhappiness over his administrative abilities, and dispatched his detractors. In the White House, Meese has had much of his portfolio as domestic adviser stripped from him, but not the confidence and affection of the President.
If Mr. Reagan plans a revisionist assault, during the campaign and in a second term, on the past generation's civil and criminal rights thrust, Meese is his man.
Or if the President wants to reward a longtime loyalist with a year as Justice Department caretaker in the last year of his first term, again, Meese makes sense. It would be stretching the weight of ideological affinity to assume , however, that Mr. Meese should be thought closer in line for a second Reagan Supreme Court appointment.
We still have to hear, from the President's own mouth, that he intends to run again. But the Meese move to Justice, like the shift of national-security adviser William Clark to the Interior, reflects the kind of melding of White House, Cabinet, and campaign staffs that occurs when an incumbent undertakes reelection.