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.