WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, everyone is being told, is now considering a "compromise" in the controversy over the closing of a large military base in California. What is really happening, of course, is that the president is playing the crudest kind of politics with a process that was intended to avoid just that.
The Base Realignment and Closure Commission was established by Congress to provide a system for reducing the size of the military in the post-Cold War era in a way that would insulate senators and congressmen from political blame for losses in jobs in their districts.
And the plan has worked so far. Both Clinton and his Republican predecessor George Bush have accepted previous BRAC recommendations. And Congress, faced with an up-or-down choice on each package of reductions, has gone along.
But this time the ox being gored is in California, which casts 54 electoral votes in presidential elections, one-fifth of the 270 needed to be elected and a prize essential to Clinton in 1996 as it was in 1992.
So the White House is now positioning itself to ask BRAC to review and revise its list before Clinton must make his own up-or-down decision next month. The rationale is the objection from the Department of Defense that the BRAC plan goes too far in ordering the shutdown of McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento at a cost of some 11,000 jobs.
The so-called "compromise" proposed by the Pentagon would keep the base operating with private contractors doing the work, thus saving most or all the civilian jobs.
Electoral votes aside, the concern about California is understandable. The state has lost 80,000 jobs in previous rounds of closures and stands to lose another 25,000 or more at several installations this time.
But there is a certain rough justice in this because the heavy concentration of the aerospace industry in California meant that the state enjoyed far more than others the benefits of the big military spending spree during the Ronald Reagan years. What goes up presumably is what comes down.
The dimensions of the cutbacks are significant enough, nonetheless, to justify efforts by the federal government to encourage alternate uses for military facilities that would ease the pain on dislocated workers. Indeed, those efforts make sense in every community that has taken a hard hit from BRAC. And in many communities they have been successful. That is not the same thing, however, as undermining the process itself.
If California appears to be getting special treatment, as seems to the case, every other state suffering losses has a valid complaint. Even if they don't, Clinton's Republican critics in Congress are not going to overlook the opportunity to accuse the president of playing favorites for political reasons. Unsurprisingly, House Speaker Newt Gingrich already has done so.
Some Republicans also are playing a little politics on the issue. Gov. Pete Wilson of California, running for the Republican
presidential nomination next year, already is assailing the BRAC plan and demanding that Clinton put the whole thing on ice. His argument is that the closure system was based on the premise -- unfulfilled by Clinton -- that the administration would develop a comprehensive strategy for reducing the size of the military RTC establishment to deal with the lessened threat to national security.
But there is a difference between a governor inventing some tortured reasoning to try to protect workers in his own state and a president tinkering with a system for transparent political advantage.
In fact, the political volatility of the issue in the 1996 campaign is probably being overstated on all sides. Although it is likely that the overall condition of the economy will be an important factor in the presidential election, it is unlikely that the closing of a particular Air Force base would be decisive in a state as huge and diverse as California.
Beyond that, the picture of Clinton jockeying for position on this question is one that could reinforce his image as "too political" in his stewardship of the White House.
The base-closing question is an awkward one for politicians under the best of circumstances. They love to dispense government largess and they hate to take it away.
But all the rhetoric about making the tough decisions to reduce federal spending sounds hollow if they duck the toughest of those decisions.