WHEN JIMMY CARTER was elected president there was a lot of talk about how he would bypass the establishment in choosing his Cabinet. Then the names came down -- Cyrus Vance, Joseph Califano, Michael Blumenthal, Griffin Bell, Patricia Harris. They were fairly conventional. So to a large extent has it been with Ronald Reagan. There was talk early on -- apprehension in some quarters, hope in others -- that he might turn to the outer reaches of his party in the appointment process. Two of his Cabinet choices -- James Watt in the first term, Edwin Meese at Justice now -- have indeed had an ideological cast. But most have been mainstream conservatives. Shultz, Baker, Brock, Regan, Stockman, Baldridge, Dole -- these are names that have made the term "pragmatist" a minor epithet in this administration.

The president's latest choice of Dr. Otis Bowen, former Indiana governor, to be secretary of health and human services appears to fit well within this pragmatic mold. In that sense it is reassuring. The Department of Health and Human Services is one of the great switching yards for social policy in the government. The secretary deals with issues ranging from policy toward birth control and abortion to the rights of the disabled, the regulation of the drug industry and medical reimbursement rates -- how much the government, and the nation generally, ought to pay doctors and hospitals. Some of these issues are obviously sensitive in social and ideological terms. Others are important fiscally; health-care costs -- chiefly under the Medicare program for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor -- now make up about a tenth of the federal budget. Mr. Reagan's first two secretaries in this area -- Richard Schweiker and Margaret Heckler -- were tested public figures used to the processes of accommodation that make he government go. Dr. Bowen seems to have the same qualification.

The nominee served in the Indiana legislature for 14 years, the last six as speaker of the House; then for two terms he was governor. For many years he was a practicing physician and more recently a faculty member at the University of Indiana medical school. Two years ago he was chairman of a Social Security advisory council that focused on the future financial prospects of Medicare. The commission's interesting combination of recommendations included higher federal tobacco and alcohol taxes to help finance the program, higher patient payments for some ordinary services but greater protection against the cost of catastrophic illness.

Dr. Bowen has already been attacked by various right-wing and anti-abortion groups that believe he does not completely measure up to their unforgiving standards. We hope they are right. Confirmation hearings will provide more insight into the nominee and his record. So far both look pretty good.