Reporters' Roundtable: Crisis in Haiti Haitian protesters have settled down for now, but how long will the calm last? Plus, the debate over U.S. troop withdrawal in Iraq continues. NPR's Tony Cox tackles the week's news with reporters Erin Aubry Kaplan, John Yearwood, and Beth Fouhy.
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Reporters' Roundtable: Crisis in Haiti

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Reporters' Roundtable: Crisis in Haiti

Reporters' Roundtable: Crisis in Haiti

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TONY COX, host:

This is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. Haitian protesters settle down for now, but how long will the calm last? And President Bush won't be pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq any time soon, based on General Patraeus' recommendations, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Former Secretary of State Colin Powell are offering a different point of view. Those topics and more on today's Reporters' Roundtable with Erin Aubry Kaplan, a contributing editor at the L.A. Times op-ed section, John Yearwood, a world editor at the Miami Herald, and Beth Fouhy, who covers presidential politics for the Associated Press. Hello everybody.

Ms. ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN (Contributing editor, L.A. Times op-ed section): Hi, Tony.

Ms. BETH FOUHY (Journalist, Associated Press): Hi there.

Mr. JOHN YEARWOOD (World editor, MIAMI HERALD): Hello, Tony.

COX: Nice to have you with us. Let's begin with this. We just heard from fellow journalist, Mara Schiavompo - Schiavocampo, I always get her name wrong - who is actually in Haiti right now. And she talked about the problems that are occurring there. I want to follow that conversation up with the three of you along this line. More than half of the Haitian senators and much of the public is calling for the resignation of the prime minister and the U.S. backed president, Rene Preval. Haitian rioters, as you know, tried to storm the presidential palace on Wednesday. John, is a leadership change in order here?

Mr. YEARWOOD: Well Tony, a few months ago I was in Haiti in which I met with both the prime minister and the president. I think, at the time, we were talking about the level of political stability that they have brought to the country and, since then, there has been an intended vote of no confidence in the prime minister that, essentially, failed. And my sense is that certainly the president will survive this. The prime minister, I'm not as sure.

Clearly, as you know, the prime minister's the one who runs the day-to-day government, and he certainly has a lot to answer for. But as he has proven in the past, he's very politically skilled and cunning. And we may see those skills come into play again this time. What, clearly, that they have to do is to announce a package of remedies that would help get to the heart of this, which is an economic problem. And by the way, it's an economic problem we're not only seeing in Haiti, that we're seeing in a number of countries around Latin America and, indeed, around the world, as it's related to the increase in food prices.

COX: Absolutely. Well Beth, along that line, we mentioned that the rioters tried to storm the presidential palace on Wednesday. Mara told us that things are calm for now. Not knowing how long that calm will continue, do you think that a coup is possible there?

Ms. FOUHY: Oh gosh, I couldn't say for sure. I mean, we're looking at this on my beat from a domestic standpoint, as presidential candidates are getting ready to take over the reigns here and looking at a very unstable situation in a lot of countries. What I find interesting is that the rising price of food is affecting populations everywhere. I mean, a place like Haiti, which is so especially poor, it's the most acute. But here in this country, it's starting to be a very common campaign issue that voters bring up on the campaign trail. Between the cost of food and the rising fuel prices, people are really starting to be priced out of just really basic necessities. And we're seeing it in an acute way in a place like Haiti, which is a desperately poor environment. But it's also starting to creep into the conversation here.

COX: It absolutely is. But Erin Aubry Kaplan, do you think it is going to creep into the conversation in such a way that the United States or the international community might in fact be more engaged in trying to bring a resolution to this particularly, or beginning with Haiti, let's say?

Ms. KAPLAN: Well, I would like to think so, Tony, but I doubt it. I mean, Haiti has been so unstable for so long. And frankly, you know, at its worst crisis, doesn't get a lot of coverage here, doesn't get a lot of political attention. Although, this latest thing with, you know, the food riots, I guess you could call them, is hard to ignore. I mean, people storming the palace. I mean, it kind of brings to mind the point that, I think, Bono, the rock star who's become, you know, a global activist, has said that poverty is a great threat to global security. And you can really see it in Haiti. And I think it's going to become at least a presidential campaign issue.

COX: How soon, Beth, do you think we'll start really hearing more about this from the candidates? Or have we begun to, a little bit, already?

Ms. FOUHY: Well, they talk a lot about the various environments around the world that are quite unstable. And I think that this is going to come up soon. I mean, the dedication to eradicating poverty is something that John Edwards talked a lot about on the campaign trail. And it's starting to be something that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are talking about more and more as well as we are seeing the economic situation becoming quite dire, both around the world and here domestically.

And just last week, Senator Clinton said she would create a new post in the cabinet, a poverty czar, if elected president next year. So it's definitely something that's very much on their minds and on their radar screens.

COX: Well, let's talk about something that they are talking about quite a bit, the Iraq war. General David Petraeus spent two days in congressional hearings this week giving an update on U.S. progress in Iraq. In response to the general's outlet, the president said just yesterday that there would be no further reduction of troops in Iraq beyond those already set to take place in July. Here's the president.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: General Petraeus says he'll need time to consolidate his forces and assess how this reduced American presence will affect conditions on the ground before making measured recommendations on further reductions. And I've told him he'll have all the time he needs.

COX: Now, on the very same day that the president was making those comments, John, in direct contrast, Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that he hopes that we are able to resume troop reductions after a 45-day pause.

Dr. ROBERT GATES (U.S. Defense Secretary): I certainly hope, continue to hope, that conditions will allow us to remove more troops by year's end. That hope for return on success is shared by the president, General Petraeus, Admiral Mullin, and the chiefs.

COX: So, John, am I missing something here? What's going on?

Mr. JOHN YEARWOOD (Editor for the Miami Herald): Well, clearly a mixed message coming from the White House. The president has said it all along, even going back to even before he was re-elected, that he would listen to his generals on the ground. And he made that clear in the speech that he gave. Clearly, the secretary of defense, either, was not part of the conversation, or they wanted to send a message - a message that they felt was important to impart to the constituency that says well, for the families of service members, there will be a possibility that we will be resuming these draw downs.

But you know, as with everything else, the president is the one who holds sway. And to whom do you listen and who do you believe, the president or the secretary of defense? Most people want to believe the president. But it's clearly a case where the secretary of defense needs to clear some of these speeches with the White House before he goes out and contradicts his boss.

COX: Well to make matters worse, Beth, Gates yesterday, or today I believe it was, tried to sort of clarify what he meant and suggest that he and the administration are all on the same page. And yet, my reading of it - I don't know if you had an opportunity to hear him or not - was that he didn't clear anything up.

Ms. FOUHY: Well, it does seem a little bit unclear, doesn't it? It's two very, very strong voices here not quite saying the same thing, and they're probably working very quickly to try to get back on the same page, as you say. But it probably reflects a difference of opinion within the administration that, you know, the president wants to leave as much time and space for General Petraeus to make things happen on the ground there.

But Secretary Gates can see another way to go. And perhaps it's a situation that's still being worked out. But the president has declared what he would like to do. And I would agree that that's the voice that is going to prevail, ultimately.

COX: For those people, Erin, who are hoping to have the troops brought home sooner rather than later, the news that the president is going to reduce deployments from 15 months to 12 months, how good of good news is that?

Ms. KAPLAN: How good of good news is what? Bush's...

COX: The reduction from 15 to 12 months for the deployment. You know, I suppose if you're there, three months is better than nothing. And yet, on one hand, you could make the argument that that's not a particularly significant change.

Ms. KAPLAN: Yeah, it seems a bit of token. You know, listen, I think that that was kind of clear this week in Congress is that, you know, they're making this up as they go. There's no real measure for, you know, the point we can pull out. I think Barack Obama asked that question. Well how much democracy do we need to have in Iraq before we can leave? And the remark Bush made about - I'm going to give the general all the time he needs. That sounds an awful lot like a blank check. And the blank check has been raised a lot this week in terms of how much it's worth costing.

And the Democrats, and some Republicans, have really been pushing that. So time is money. I mean, literally, for the soldiers over there. So I think that's just sort of a bone that's being thrown their way. And I really don't think that, as testified by the differing views, you know, to the president and secretary of defense, there's just no solid plan here.

COX: All right. We're going to move on to another topic. But in case you are just now joining us, you are listening to NPR's News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. With me on today's Reporters' Roundtable are Erin Aubry Kaplan, whom we just heard, contributing editor at the LA Times op-ed section, John Yearwood, a world editor at the Miami Herald, and Beth Fouhy, who covers presidential politics for the Associated Press. And Beth, I'm going to come to you with this. Let's talk about the Pennsylvania primary, which is closing in on us. In early March, Hillary Clinton had nearly a double-digit lead in the Keystone State over Obama. How are those numbers looking now?

Ms. FOUHY: Well, the polls have definitely shown a tightening in Pennsylvania, which is really to be expected. Her lead of about, as you said, about 22 points shortly after the last round of primaries in early March was certainly not sustainable. I mean, Barack Obama has clearly done very well in states where he spends time campaigning. And he is now campaigning there. His campaign is running a lot of advertising on television and radio. He has a very big presence in Pennsylvania.

So it was inevitable that the polls were going to tighten up. And I don't think that came as much of a surprise to anybody. Now that said, whether he can close on Hillary Clinton, actually beat her there, is going to be a pretty big challenge for him because Pennsylvania has lots of demographic advantages that favor the former first lady. It's an older state. It's got one of the highest average ages in the country, and she tends to do better among the older voters than he does. It's got a lot of the same, sort of, white, working class voters with some of the same economic concerns that she did so well in Ohio last month.

So it's going to be a tall order for Senator Obama to beat her in Pennsylvania, but probably not impossible. He's running a spectacular campaign. As everybody knows, he's got a lot of money. And he still has a little bit of time. He's got a little bit more than a week to get his message out. So we'll see.

COX: Speaking of money, John Yearwood, there's articles today both in the LA Times and the New York Times about Obama, and particularly in Philadelphia. And what those articles refer to as street money - a sort of financial patronage system that you would think Obama would be familiar with coming from Chicago, as he does. But the issue seems to be that he is unwilling, at least publicly stated, to provide this kind of ten dollar, 20 dollar, 30 dollar, 40-dollar payment to people to work the streets for him in Philadelphia. Do you think that could be a factor in how well he does in Pennsylvania?

Mr. YEARWOOD: To some extent, it could, Tony. But it seems that Obama is doing so well, I think, on his own. I'm not quite sure how much of an impact that would have on his campaign. I think where the race is really going to be won, not as much in Philadelphia, because there is a school of thought out there that says if you look at Philadelphia, he may win Philadelphia. But if you look out in the other parts of the state, rural areas, where Hillary is strongest, that may be the area where you may see a lot of rural voters come out for Hillary to, at least, to sustain a win for her. But...

Ms. FOUHY: Tony, if I could just jump in too. The suburbs are really the areas that are going to be the big test for Senator Obama. The suburbs of Philadelphia, the suburbs of Pittsburgh, as opposed to downtown, where even if he's not giving out the walking around money, his vote is likely to be very strong compared with hers.

COX: Oh, OK. And I see also there's supposed to be a difference between, let's say, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in terms of the electorate in both those places. Is that more to the point that you were about to make, John?

Mr. YEARWOOD: Yes. And you know, the main thing and even going on beyond that, Tony, everyone believes that regardless of what happens in Pennsylvania, certainly, you know, the conventional wisdom right now is that Clinton will win Pennsylvania. If that happens, certainly the race goes on. And where it goes from there, I think, is a big question.

COX: Well, let me interrupt you. Let me stop you to ask you that because I think some people think that there's a question about that. Does she have to win in Pennsylvania by a certain margin in order for her to go on?

Mr. YEARWOOD: If it's real close. I think if you look at polls in the states that follow, many of them are very favorable to her campaign. And there is a feeling that if you look at what happens next, that she stands a good chance of doing better down the road. And she said a few weeks ago that she's going all the way to the convention. Now, no one really expects that to happen, ultimately, because even Howard Dean is talking about a resolution by the beginning of July.

But all the indications are that the race will go on. Indeed, even the Clintons were saying that they're not quitters. But we will get a resolution by the middle of June, beginning of July or so.

COX: Let me bring Erin in. Do you buy that, that the Clintons are in it until the end, win it or not?

Ms. KAPLAN: Well, fortunately, I think that's true. But I agree with your point about according to the map that I've read, she really, Clinton really has to win Pennsylvania by, you know, a double-digit margin. And if not, it's really over. So I, you know, I don't know how likely that will happen at this point. You know, the gap has been narrowing, as you pointed out. And if she wins by under, you know, 10 points, the question will become, you know, will she just keep going even though it's very, very, very unlikely, if not impossible, that she will win. You know, and then we're back to the superdelegates.

COX: Right. Certainly. And what if she wins really big in Pennsylvania? What does that do to the race? And if it's a landslide, let's say?

Ms. KAPLAN: Well, she will certainly go on. I guess, the odds are better that she could win - not great. I don't think that puts her neck and neck with Obama. But it certainly would compel her to keep going and, you know, right, you know, up until the convention. And there are a lot of people hoping that won't happen because the Democrats simply have to choose a nominee and get on with, you know, the task of convincing people that we need to elect a Democrat for president.

COX: Well, we won't have to...

Mr. YEARWOOD: Hey, Tony, if I can say...

COX: Certainly. Go ahead and say - really quickly...

Mr. YEARWOOD: Really quickly.

COX: Really quickly.

Mr. YEARWOOD: If I can say really quickly, I don't think that it will go up to the convention. But I think everyone who has looked at the Democratic campaign so far can agree on one thing - that in state after state, Democrats have outpaced Republicans in terms of the numbers of Democrats voting and indeed in the number of Democrats raising money.

COX: That's it. We got to stop there, John. Unfortunately, we're all out of time. I appreciate it. We've been speaking with Erin Aubry Kaplan, Beth Fouhy, and John Yearwood, world editor of the Miami Herald, who joined us from member station WLRN.

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