Attempting to fit candidates into ideological boxes can be helpful for understanding their thinking, but it presents three challenges at this stage of the campaign.
First, compared to this point in the 2008 competition, these candidates have said very little about foreign policy. We are left parsing past and current rhetoric and writing. But it can be instructive. For example, a line in April 2007 speech by then-candidate Obama foreshadowed his strategy in Libya: "when we use force in situations other than self-defense, we should make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others."
Second, most politicians naturally want to have it both ways, attempting to mix-and-match rhetoric and positions.
Third, beliefs can change, as they have with past presidents. When someone goes from a senator's office or governor's mansion to commanding the armed forces and facing the myriad foreign policy crises that a president encounters in the White House Situation Room, they can look at the world, crises and other nations differently. Reagan himself was criticized by some and celebrated by others as he moved from his early administration's exceptionalism to a more realistic approach to negotiations and engagement with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
With these caveats in mind, here's a review of each candidate's attempt to meet the moment.
Mitt Romney -- Thinks Realist, Talks Exceptionalist
While exceptionalist in title, Romney's book No Apologies includes a revealing "Index of Leading Leading Indicators," as he terms them, meant to "anticipate the future level of America's prosperity and security." As Romney admits, such a list is "easy to criticize" and far from comprehensive. The mix, heavy on realistic benchmarks (for example, a comparison of American military capabilities against potential threats) with a few exceptional indices (for example, the global reach of freedom), reflects his attempt to balance between the realist and exceptionalist inclinations.
Romney the former business leader worries about drags on American resources and strength in a realist global competition, but Romney the politician worries about sounding exceptionalist. His realistic assessment of the past performance of great powers is punctuated with such exceptionalist outbursts as, "It is inconceivable that America would ever be surpassed by another nation." He has mixed his sober review of U.S. power in the foreign policy landscape with references to tactics from Reagan's 1970s exceptionalist playbook, bemoaning the Obama administration nuclear arms negotiations with Russia.
Romney, once again, is trying to have it both ways. This ideology-straddling can be seen in Romney's comments about Afghanistan in the first Republican debate: he made the exceptionalist's commitment to victory, arguing American troops should "come home ... based upon the conditions on the ground," while nodding to realists that "we've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation."