Will the real George Bush please stand up?

Is it the George Bush who this week for the first time opened the door to higher income taxes for the rich in return for a cut in the tax on capital gains?Or is it the George Bush who a few hours later slammed the door on such a compromise?

Whatever the answer may be, this flip-flop has left the prospect of a breakthrough in the yearlong stalemate over how to cut the deficit looking even more remote than before, if that's possible. And it has left the White House looking more wishy-washy than presidential.

In essence, the White House accepted the proposed tax compromise after it was endorsed by House Republicans, then rejected it after it was spurned by Senate Republicans.

Must the country conclude that in order to find out what President Bush thinks about a compromise on tax policy, it simply must learn the name of the last person with whom he discussed this subject? If that question sounds unfair, consider the fact that this isn't the first such flip-flop.

Under the proposed compromise, the top income tax rate for wealthy Americans would have been raised from 28 percent to 33 percent. In return, the tax rate on capital gains would have been reduced from 28 percent to 23 percent.

The part of the compromise on capital gains came straight from the budget that Bush submitted January. But when the budget summit opened a few weeks ago, Bush's negotiators started pressing for a capital gains rate of only 15 percent.

Maybe Bush can justify these repeated shifts. But he owes the country a more thorough explanation than it has received so far.