President Clinton was at his tawdry worst the other day when he blasted a commission of his own choosing for playing politics when it voted to close two Air Force depots in Texas and California, two huge states on the presidential election map.
He deemed the commission's findings "an outrage" at the same moment he was giving them his official approval. And he accused his critics (and implicitly the commission itself) "of a calculated, deliberate attempt" to turn his efforts to preserve jobs at these bases "into a political thing and to obscure the real economic impact."
His performance was vintage Clinton: a display of anger at any suggestion he would put politics ahead of the national welfare; a wheedling attempt to bend both ways when faced with a difficult decision; and a whiff of rhetorical overkill that was patently false on its face.
The president in his temper tantrum conveniently ignored the fact that his leaky White House staff had openly lamented the political fallout due from California job losses. As for his claim that the present Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission had deviated from past practice by adding more bases to the Pentagon's list of closure candidates, it just wasn't true. Nor could anyone take at face value his assertion that the closing of Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio would "virtually wipe out the Hispanic middle class" in that city.
Mr. Clinton's handling of this issue would be laughable if the issue were not so serious. Since the Cold War began to fade in 1988, defense spending (after inflation) has dropped 40 percent and troop strength 30 percent. Yet even with the new base closings added to the list, the reduction in military bases coveted by communities all around the country has amounted to only 21 percent.
The political and economic consequences of closing military facilities are so great that the legislative and executive branches decided early on to turn the task over to independent, non-partisan commissions that would make findings Congress and the president must accept in toto or not at all. Three times this process worked, with only predictable yelps of pain.
Now, on the fourth go-around, we have the spectacle of the president denouncing a process for which he offers no alternative. Mr. Clinton's actions will make matters more difficult the next time there is an attempt to close excess military bases.
Yes, this whole affair has become an "outrage." But the outrage is not the handiwork of a base-closing commission trying to save $20 billion. Rather, it is the behavior of the president.