Democrats are in such a panic over the prospect of a government shutdown that President Obama spent four hours on the golf course Saturday and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told his colleagues to take the weekend off, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi left town to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary.

Why show up for work? The Democrats are following Napoleon’s old adage: Never interfere when your enemy is in the process of destroying himself.

Obama has accused Republicans of hostage taking. Let’s be clear: I’m all for taking hostages. Both sides do it all the time. But one of the first things they teach you in Hostage Taking 101 is that you have to choose a hostage the other side cares about saving. Obama and the Democrats don’t care about stopping a government shutdown. With a shutdown, Republicans are essentially putting a gun to their own heads and threatening to pull the trigger if the Democrats don’t capitulate. Not surprisingly, it’s not working.

Some congressional Republicans can’t seem to get it though their heads: When it comes to a government shutdown they . . . have . . . no . . . leverage. By contrast, when it comes to the debt-limit showdown, they do have leverage; while Obama can let the government close and blame the GOP, he cannot allow the United States to default.

As former treasury secretary Timothy Geithner explained during the last debt-limit standoff, the effects of default would be “catastrophic,” resulting in the “loss of millions of American jobs,” and would have an economic impact “potentially much more harmful than the effects of the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.” Obama will not permit an economic crisis worse than 2008-09 and the “loss of millions of American jobs” on his watch. He has no choice but to negotiate with GOP leaders and cut a deal to avoid a government default.

So what’s the smart move here, Republicans? Simple: Pass a clean, short-term continuing resolution to keep the government operating at current levels and then attach your demands to legislation raising the debt limit. That is what House Speaker John Boehner wanted to do. But House Republicans instead insisted on sending the Senate a bill demanding a one-year delay in Obamacare and repeal of the medical-device tax as a condition of avoiding a government shutdown. The shutdown that Democrats not-so-secretly want to happen so they can blame the GOP.

This is not even smart procedurally. Reid doesn’t need 60 votes to kill the House bill. He can reject it and send it right back to the House with a simple majority vote. Republicans have not so much as spoiled Reid’s lunch plans, much less put him in a political corner.

What House Republicans have done, however, is undermine their chances of at least getting a one-year delay in Obamacare. They might very well have forced Democrats to swallow such a delay if they had waited and attached it to a debt-limit increase. But now, because they attached it to a doomed continuing resolution, Senate Democrats will be on record voting against a one-year delay. They are not likely to reverse themselves in a few weeks’ time and vote for it.

The sad part is, Republicans could have been winning this fight. President Obama’s approval rating is at a two-year low, and polls show that only 39 percent of Americans approve of Obamacare. The law is less popular than ever. But only 27 percent of Americans want Republicans to shut down the government over Obamacare. That’s why Obama and Senate Democrats are champing at the bit to let the government close — so they can divide the Republicans from voters who agree with them on substance and torture the GOP with weeks of bad news coverage.

If Republicans had taken their stand on the debt ceiling instead, there would be no weeks of bad news coverage — because the Democrats would be capitulating instead of celebrating.

Republicans are failing for one simple reason: They took the wrong hostage.

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Ann Telnaes animation: Countdown to government shutdown (Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)