PRESIDENT Bush has gone from a provocative choice for chairman of the Republican National Committee to a non-offending one. William Bennett, who withdrew before serving for fear the job would embroil him in conflicts of interest, has built a career on ruffled feathers. Clayton Yeutter, the current agriculture secretary and new nominee, has made a virtue of smoothing them instead.

Mr. Bennett announced at the time of his nomination that he hoped to make racial quotas a leading issue between the parties. The complex issue -- not quotas, a loaded term and extreme example, but subtler preferences -- deserves debate, but the context suggested that the administration was prepared to reduce it to a bumper sticker in a way that would be explosive. It is hard to imagine Mr. Yeutter leading such a charge.

The improbable chairman-to-be is a PhD in agricultural economics and former cattleman and president of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange who has been a Cabinet officer in two administrations. He earned good marks as special trade representative in the second Reagan term before moving to his present job. His was a tenure in which, as part of the effort to reduce the deficit and for good reasons of agricultural policy as well, farm price supports were cut about 20 percent. He helped to bring this off with relatively little farm-state blame being laid on the president -- no small feat. In part that was because Congress was carefully made to go first, yet Mr. Yeutter remained a fairly well-respected figure in Congress as well.

He has no experience in electoral politics, but his appointment riles neither wing of the party, and he has generally succeeded in new roles in the past. The next question is who will succeed him as emissary to the farmers as the Cabinet continues to be refreshed for the next election.