There is a glib, widely circulated explanation offered for the remarkable rise of outsider Herman Cain in barely five weeks from fifth place to first — from being the choice of just 5 percent of Republican voters to being the favorite of 27 percent in the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll. That explanation goes like this: Herman Cain is just the latest winner of the Republican’s latest ABM — Anybody But Mitt (Romney) — competition. The former Massachusetts governor, who in spite of a series of polished, professional debate performances, seems to be stuck around 23 percent in the same poll, which suggests that Romney’s popularity could have a “low ceiling.”
It is true that the principal challenger to Romney's role has been filled, before Cain's ascent, successively, albeit briefly, first by TV reality show host-landlord Donald Trump, then third-term Rep. Michele Bachmann and then Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
But when someone, after languishing for several months at low single digits in the polls, more than quintuples his support to become leader of the pack, there has to be a reason beyond simple "novelty."
Here is my take on Cain's rising. At a time when voters are terminally pessimistic about their own, their children's and their country's futures, Herman Cain brims with an invigorating and welcome optimism. In this virulently anti-politician, anti-Washington season, Cain's total absence of any record in public office is a huge plus. Cain's own frank, unprogrammatic language (some of which lately, yes, he has been forced to qualify, even nullify) can still be delightfully refreshing when contrasted with the rehearsed, pre-tested talking points of his opponents.
His personal story is one of growing up in the still-segregated South as the son of a chauffeur-father and a cleaning lady-mother, who graduated from Atlanta's Morehouse College, the only all-male historically black college (the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr., Maynard Jackson, Julian Bond, Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee), followed by -- with obviously no family connections -- a truly successful business career as a CEO. The politics of biography remains important in American campaigns for national leadership.
Let's be frank. Herman Cain is still a candidate who is, beyond his 9-9-9 tax mantra, still too light on specifics, who is running a campaign that is weak on structure and scarce in personnel. He is still very much a long-shot.
But if somehow he were to win the GOP nomination, imagine the historic match-up next November. The challenger would be an African-American conservative who grew up unable to eat at lunch counters, required to drink water from "colored" bubblers and forbidden to use "white" restrooms in the region of the nation most fiercely resistant to the national civil rights laws -- a region that overwhelmingly backed the presidential candidacy of segregation-defender George Wallace.
The incumbent -- a generation younger, the son of a Kenyan father and a white Kansas mother, raised by his Kansas grandparents in Hawaii -- knew the sting of racial discrimination but was spared the lash of racial segregation.
Almost certainly, GOP nominee Herman Cain would carry the states of the Old Confederacy, which have become, in the post-civil rights era (as LBJ, the president whose leadership ended legally sanctioned segregation forecast, 46 years ago), the U.S.'s most unfailingly Republican region. In those states in 2008, Barack Obama averaged just 25 percent of the white vote. It's hard to see, given the economy, how he will do much better in 2012.
Which would mean that the descendants of voters who cheered George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door while failing to stop the federally forced desegregation of the University of Alabama would almost certainly vote strongly for African-American Herman Cain for president. Wow!
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.