Republican candidates and even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been quoting the 40th president lately but his legacy is filled with complexities

There was a time when he was too radical for Republicans and too polarising for Democrats but these days everyone seems to love Ronald.

The 15 Republican presidential candidates took turns channeling Reagan’s spirit in this week’s debate at the Reagan Library, invoking his name 45 times, by one count .

The CNN moderator, Jake Tapper, framed the event as a contest to seize the mantle of the United States’s 40th president. “Ronald Reagan looming large over this debate. So how Reaganesque exactly are these Republicans? We will find out next.”

For the GOP, Reagan is not just a name but an adjective connoting virtue and conservative ideological purity.

Yet Democrats are getting in on the act, too. Hillary Clinton is using Reagan quotes to assail GOP contenders and to bolster progressive policies in her own White House run. And President Barack Obama cites Reagan when promoting his administration’s deal with Iran, noting that the Gipper negotiated with the Soviet Union.

Would the real Ronald Reagan please stand up? Was he a government-shrinking, undocumented immigrant-bashing, climate change-denying, abortion-curbing political granddaddy of today’s Republican presidential hopefuls? Or a liberal peacenik who could moonlight as a Democrat?

It is easy to forget that Republicans deemed the California governor too right-wing when he lost the 1976 primary race to President Gerald Ford. And that once in the White House, Democrats assailed him as callous and reckless, and a deceitful architect of the Iran-Contra scandal.

Now, almost three decades after he left office, and 11 years since his death, a president hailed for his commitment to principle appears made of Plasticine, a malleable figure squished into multiple shapes.

One reason is his popularity. Some 90% of Republicans and 60% of Americans have a positive view of Reagan, giving would-be successors incentive to bask in the glow.

The other reason is that Reagan was a complex, nuanced figure. He spoke of giving voters “a cause to believe in... raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colours”. He was serious about curbing government even while joking about it: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

Yet as governor and president, Reagan often proved moderate and pragmatic. He did that which is now unforgivable in the GOP, a transgression beyond redemption: he compromised.

So on the one hand there was the president who fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, gutted mental health funding, slashed taxes and regulations, built up the armed forces and went to Berlin to challenge the Soviet Union to “tear down this wall”. Plenty there for Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Scott Walker to admire.

He was also a larger-than-life outsider with memorable one-liners who projected authenticity and a desire to shake up Washington, a case study for Donald Trump, who in customary self-aggrandizing manner said Reagan admired him, inverting the notion of homage.

With a California sun setting over the Simi valley outside, and the Gipper’s Air Force One gleaming behind them, the GOP debate hopefuls invoked Reagan like a talisman.

Ohio governor John Kasich said he “actually flew on this plane with Reagan when I was a congressman”. Kentucky senator Rand Paul recalled meeting Reagan as a teenager and considering him a hero for challenging Ford in the 1976 primaries. “It was a big deal because he was the grassroots, running against the establishment.”

New Jersey governor Chris Christie recalled casting his first vote for Reagan over Jimmy Carter in 1980, saying, “Boy, am I glad I did it.” South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham advocated a Reaganite policy of “peace through strength”.

They were all silent on other parts of his legacy. Reagan the environmentalist – as governor he protected California’s wilderness from dams and highways and created an air resources board, as president he launched the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer – did not appear.

Nor did Reagan the spender who raised taxes (four to 11 times, depending how you count) and increased the federal workforce by 324,000 people, raised the debt ceiling 18 times and almost tripled the federal debt.

Nor did Reagan the retreater who withdrew from Lebanon after terrorists killed 248 US marines, leaving the country to civil war, or Reagan the negotiator who reached out to the “evil empire”, or the Reagan who signed California’s liberal abortion law, the Brady gun law, collective bargaining for local government workers and amnesty for almost 3 million undocumented people.

“If the current Republican candidates want to truly embody his legacy, they must let go of the false caricature and acknowledge Reagan’s complexity as well as his moderation,” Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant defence secretary during Reagan’s administration, wrote in the Los Angeles Times .

Obama has enlisted this lesser-known Gipper in defence of the Iran nuclear deal, telling the New York Times : “You know, I have a lot of differences with Ronald Reagan, but where I completely admire him was his recognition that if you were able to verify an agreement that you would negotiate with the evil empire that was hellbent on our destruction and was a far greater existential threat to us than Iran will ever be [then it would be worth doing].”

Clinton, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, has channeled her own version of Reagan in the form of quotes and dates plastered alongside photos of GOP rivals.

For Walker the union-buster: “Collective bargaining has played a major role in America’s economic miracle.” (September 3, 1981). For Rubio the tax-slayer: “What we’re trying to move against is institutionalized unfairness. We want to see that everyone pays their fair share and no one gets a free ride.” (June 6 1985). For Trump the deporter: “I believe in amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” (October 21 1984).

Clinton’s message is that the GOP has moved far to the right and left Reagan, the real Reagan, behind. Appropriating Reagan for her own campaign, however, would be an audacious heist.

What the Hollywood actor-turned political myth would have made of the combustible 2016 White House race is anyone’s guess. He may well have enjoyed the spectacle given that he compared politics to show business. “You have a hell of an opening, you coast for awhile, you have a hell of a closing.” © Guardian News and Media 2015