HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Democrats have been taking a beating in the press over the bungled Healthcare.gov rollout. The president and his senior staff were clearly not aware of the problems bedeviling the website beforehand, and Republicans, sensing blood, have been baying for…something. (What exactly is not clear, unless you count total capitulation and repeal.) This is leading to a sense of rising panic in the party — today, the White House is sending some top aides to Capitol Hill to try to calm anxious Senate Democrats.

The Democrats should hang tough. Though it may be necessary to patch the law at some point, they shouldn’t stampede themselves into passing a fig leaf bill that would harm the proper functioning of the law. Like it or not, Obamacare is the hill the party has chosen to fight or die on. No fig leaf will save them, should the administration be unable to make the law work.

Here’s what I’m talking about. This morning, a few skittish Dems proposed a temporary patch that is almost a reasonable idea:

Nine House Democrats on Wednesday proposed legislation that would delay the individual health insurance mandate penalties under ObamaCare until the HealthCare.gov site is fully functional…The Health Care Access Fairness and Penalty Delay Act, H.R. 3425, would require the Department of Health and Human Services’s Inspector General to certify that the site is working. Once that certification is made, people would have 90 days to enroll in an insurance plan, and penalties for the individual mandate would not kick in until 30 days later.

Similarly, Senator Joe Manchin has proposed to delay the mandate for a year.

The only thing wrong with this is that it should only apply to states which don’t have a functioning website. A few state exchanges are troubled (though probably none so bad as Healthcare.gov), but the exchanges in states like Washington and Kentucky are basically functional. These places are already reaching escape velocity, and the individual mandate is a critical part of that success — it keeps the healthy people in so risk can be pooled properly. Any delay of the mandate should be targeted to exchanges which are actually dysfunctional. There’s just no sense in risking harm to the working ones.

I understand how this must feel to vulnerable Democrats. Even liberal journalists are criticizing the rollout, network news programs are running breathless (though poorly fact-checked) stories about Obamacare “rate shock” victims, and the president’s approval rating is down sharply. Wrong-footed and near panic, legislators feel like they need to propose something, anything, to show they’ve been trying to protect their constituents.

But Democrats should keep their head about this. This is a place where a press beating — and the accompanying Republican gloat-fest — makes absolutely no difference to medium and long-term outcomes.

If the government can make Healthcare.gov work, then by the 2014 election, all these problems will have been long forgotten. Democrats will be able to confidently run on Obamacare’s successes, which will be tremendous.

What if the government can’t make it work?

As I said, a targeted delay of the mandate until the website is operational does make good sense. But only if things aren’t fixed by the end of the year. If they aren’t, and if the troubles stray into the new year and start seriously threatening the law’s long term prospects, a little bit of political positioning now, via proposals such as the above, aren’t going to make a bit of difference.