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GOP presidential candidates battle to claim Ronald Reagan’s mantle

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01:01 - Source: CNN
How Ronald Reagan never left the campaign trail

Story highlights

It's a rite of passage for Republican White House aspirants to invoke Ronald Reagan

Conservatives see his presidency in the 1980s as a golden age

But does Reagan now serve as a crutch for up-and-coming candidates looking for an easy shortcut into the hearts of conservative voters?

Program note: This story was originally published in 2015. Explore the decade that continues to fascinate us today: CNN Original Series “The Eighties” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.

Washington CNN —  

It’s been a quarter of a century since Ronald Reagan rode off into the California sunset, but the Republican Party has never stopped hankering for his heir.

The next generation of GOP White House candidates will battle for that long-vacant role Wednesday night, as they gather alongside Reagan’s restored Air Force One at his presidential library for a pair of CNN presidential debates.

It’s a rite of passage for Republican White House aspirants to invoke Reagan. Conservatives see his presidency as a golden age during which their movement slayed communism, restored America as a “shining city on a hill” and delivered 44 and then 49 states in successive presidential election routs. Many conservatives believe the two Bush presidencies that followed Reagan, as well as the subsequent GOP nominees, failed because they were not sufficiently faithful to the 40th president’s ideoogical road map.

But some difficult questions lurk in the huge shadow Reagan casts over the Republican Party.

To begin with, is it healthy for a party – trying to reinvent itself for a new century and America’s new demographic realities – to continually define itself according to an idealized image of a man who left office in 1989 and who faded from public life before most young voters were born?

Reagan does not have a “magical glow” for many young voters, said Michael Schaller, a history professor at the University of Arizona who wrote a book about the former president, though he argued that his imagery could still be powerful for an older generation. “I don’t think the Reagan label has any particular pull on them and I don’t think that is a great formula for party building, but I think it is still enough for those who have memories of the ‘80s that seem to have been pretty good.”

Of course, Reagan was not just an ideologue; he had a pragmatic streak that allowed him to cut deals with Democratic foes on Capitol Hill. Despite his reputation as a driver of economic growth, his policies produced large deficits. He presided over tax increases that would be out of the question for conservatives now, and he extended an amnesty to undocumented immigrants, a step no GOP candidate could contemplate today.

READ: How Reagan lost his guns

Reagan, though an anti-communist to his core, also recognized that sometimes it pays to talk to America’s enemies – seeing in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a man with whom he could hasten the end of the Cold War. While Republicans slam President Barack Obama for making concessions to Iran, it’s often forgotten that the Reagan administration sold arms to Tehran to win the release of hostages in Lebanon.