The Pentagon has relieved President Clinton of having to make a difficult choice between the national interest and his personal political interests. Fortunately, its advice also makes sense.
The independent commission picking military bases that should be closed in a downsized defense establishment put Mr. Clinton on the spot by proposing the shutdown of an Air Force maintenance depot with 12,000 employees near Sacramento, Calif. Unlike almost all of the commission's 132 recommendations, this one was not on the Pentagon's list of proposed closings. To make matters worse, California has already been hard hit by military base closings. And its 54 electoral votes, most of any state, are critical to the president's re-election hopes.
Unhappily for Mr. Clinton, the case for keeping McClellan Air Force Base open was not strong. The Army and Navy are closing down some of their maintenance depots. Using the same arithmetic the other services did, the commission concluded that the Air Force could also do so. That seemed to leave Mr. Clinton stuck with a distasteful choice between politics and principle.
Now comes the Pentagon to the rescue. Rather than try to keep the depot open, it proposes turning the sophisticated repair work it does over to private industry in northern California. That way the highly skilled civilians at McClellan could continue their work under presumably more efficient and less costly management. Not to mention keeping their jobs and votes in California.
Political pragmatism aside, there is a good case for the compromise. The commission itself suggested a similar arrangement for the Texas depot, also to preserve local employment. And the Army, for one, is pushing the idea of privatizing maintenance work anyway. California politicians may still wail about some loss of jobs, but that is the consequence of having had such a large share of defense installations for so long.
If the president accepts the Pentagon's proposal, that will doom the Maryland installations slated for closing by the commission. The president, and Congress after him, can only accept or reject the commission's list as a whole. McClellan is really the only issue that has aroused sufficient controversy to stall ultimate approval. Maryland, too, prospered during the years of military buildup. Now it's belt-tightening time.