Reagan's disappearance from public life nearly six years after he left office also made it easy for conservatives of all stripes to claim his mantle. As late-night host Stephen Colbert recently pointed out to candidate Ted Cruz, Reagan's record as president deviates significantly from both his own rhetoric and the policy positions attributed to him by modern candidates.
That's why today you hear about the Reagan who instituted a massive tax cut in 1981, not the Reagan who, when revenue from supply-side economic theories failed to materialize, reversed course to sign the largest peacetime tax increase in history in 1982, and then to raise taxes again in 1983 and 1984.
Candidates will talk about the Reagan who cut government regulation, but not the one who increased the size of the federal government and the national debt. We hear about the Reagan who demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall" and called Soviet Russia an "evil empire," but not the Reagan who later met diplomatically with Soviet leaders to form the foundation of nuclear disarmament.
Perhaps the main reason that Reagan is mentioned so frequently may simply be because, as Bill Whalen of the Hoover Institution wrote before September's debate, while Democrats had Clinton and Barack Obama to fill the void after Kennedy, Republicans have had no recent candidates who can match Reagan's charm.
But pretending to be an imaginary version of Reagan does the candidates no services — no one really believes that Romney or Donald Trump are Reagan reincarnated, and many voters are too young to be nostalgic about Reagan anyway. According to data shared with CNBC by consumer data company Resonate, 7 percent of people who said that they vote Republican weren't even alive when Reagan left office, and more than a third of Republican voters weren't of voting age.
Whalen's advice to the debating candidates: "Like Reagan and his political journey from Trumanite to Thatcherite, dare to show evolved thought. Be bold enough to take the GOP in directions beyond its present conservative straightjacket."