WASHINGTON -- The closing of military bases is the kind of issue politicians most abhor. There is no good answer.
So the politicians use varied techniques to ease the pain. President Clinton, for example, is trying to identify himself with the positive aspects of turning swords into plowshares, as he did by visiting a Westinghouse plant in Anne Arundel County on Thursday, while reaffirming his solicitude for the military. He did that by getting himself photographed on an aircraft carrier yesterday and promising that those who helped win the Cold War won't be left "out in the cold."
The White House and Congress also have tried to give themselves a layer of insulation by allowing an ostensibly nonpartisan commission on base closings to offer an objective review of the decisions. But, as Clinton himself put it when he visited the USS Theodore Roosevelt, "We cannot repeal the laws of change."
Cutting the size of the military is not, in itself, likely to be politically menacing to the president. Opinion polls have consistently shown that voters understand the Pentagon budget needs to be reduced to reflect the end of the Cold War. Indeed, some surveys suggest that the voters these days would go further than the politicians, particularly in shutting down bases abroad and bringing troops home.
But there are many political aspects to the decisions that went into the plan put forward by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin to shut down 31 installations and cut back -- sharply, in many cases -- 134 others with the promise of saving $3.1 billion annually by the year 2000.
In Clinton's case, there is obviously the special sensitivity he feels as the first president of the United States since Franklin D. Roosevelt who never served in the military, and even went to some conspicuous lengths to avoid doing so during the war in Vietnam.
But the real pressure is felt most directly by senators and especially members of the House whose districts may be losing their major employer.
Thus, for example, when Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican from upstate New York, went home to Utica early this week, his constituents were focused most directly on what would become of Griffiss Air Force Base, a base representing 9,000 jobs in the area.
Waiting to have lunch with Boehlert, one local businessman expressed the community fear this way: "We know we're going
to take a hit, but we've had a lot of problems
up here lately, so maybe it won't be too bad."
Added his wife: "What we're wondering about is whether the process is fair."
As it turned out, Griffiss was on the Aspin list to be shut down. The question now is whether the commission will be be susceptible to pressure to modify the order -- and, if so, pressure from whom.
This is the key to how the final decisions are accepted by the voters -- simply whether they are perceived as having been fair or dictated by clout.
Griffiss does have an obvious champion. New York's senior senator, Daniel P. Moynihan, is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which will have much to do with the final fate of Clinton's economic program and, later, his health-care reform plan.
The suspicion of political clout being used unfairly is not limited to the voters, of course. Although California will take the most serious losses under the Aspin list and is suffering through unemployment above 9 percent, Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina is already complaining that the losses were minimized because the state has 54 electoral votes and two Democratic senators. South Carolina is supposed to lose the Charleston Navy Yard and five related agencies employing 17,000 workers.
The issues won't be settled for a while. The communities that want to protest their losses, meaning essentially all of them, will have that opportunity before the commission, which then must pass on the final list for approval or rejection by the president and Congress. Charleston already has raised about $500,000 to make its case, and local leaders everywhere are hiring consultants who have demonstrated in the past that they can make a case the commission will believe.
But when it is over, there will be dozens of politicians having to explain why they didn't have the clout to save those jobs.